It was a scandal that would — eventually — create international headlines: A wiretapping campaign in which the phones of journalists and a leading opposition politician were seemingly being monitored.
But for months, Greece’s “Watergate” received almost no mention in the country’s mainstream newspapers and TV channels.
“Although their silence was unimaginable, it was an opportunity for us,” says Nikolas Leontopoulos, co-founder of the investigative nonprofit Reporters United, one of the independent outlets that would establish a name for itself digging into the scandal, and which in 2021 was chosen to be the first GIJN member from Greece.
“There are exceptional reporters in mainstream media who have the right connections that could grant them access to cover this story,” Leontopoulos adds. “But if they had been actually free to do it, we wouldn’t have a reason to exist.”
The first report on the wiretapping scandal was published by the left-leaning co-operative daily Efimerida ton Syntakton (Newspaper of Editors), which said it had “solid data” showing that journalists, lawyers, and members of the anti-vaccine movement were being monitored by Greece’s intelligence services.
The stories that followed — and which included several investigations that lasted for months — tended to be published by independent outlets, including Reporters United, Inside Story, Solomon, and the left-leaning weekly newspaper Documento.
Working from a small co-working space in downtown Athens, Leontopoulos’s team first published a story on the scandal — in this case, the government’s orchestrated efforts to conceal its intentions to monitor individuals through phone-tapping practices — in January 2022. By the spring, they had enough evidence to report that these efforts were aiming to hide the monitoring of a renowned investigative finance reporter, Thanasis Koukakis. (Another independent outlet, Inside Story, first reported that the journalist was among those who had been surveilled.) Months later, the Reporters United team published a story that linked the prime minister’s general secretary to the scandal. The official responded to that story by denying the connections and allegations.
After the leader of a Greek opposition political party found out he was being monitored, the news made headlines throughout the country and across the world. But the fact that so many blockbuster revelations had come from small, independent publications reinforced a shift in Greece’s news media — the growing power of outlets not affiliated with the state in bringing malpractice and misconduct to light.
Most of these outlets were founded just in the past few years — Reporters United was officially launched in 2019 — and they represent a departure from the don’t-rock-the-boat journalism of the mainstream media.
The coverage of the wiretapping scandal by these groups represented a departure point, says Dimitris Christopoulos, a Greek academic, writer, and activist.
“Until then, I would say that this kind of journalism was almost marginalized” in the country, he says. “It is precisely because these journalists were the first to talk about this mass use either of legitimate phone intrusions and eavesdropping or the use of illegal software that now allows them to claim a share in the media landscape and to be part of setting the agenda.”
Resolve in the Face of Intimidation
When the wiretapping scandal finally reached the major outlets and broadcasters, the prime minister’s general secretary resigned from his position, but not before filing a defamation lawsuit against several press groups and individual journalists, including Reporters United, Leontopoulos, and Thodoris Chondrogiannos, another Reporters United journalist who worked on the investigation. The case is scheduled to go to court in January 2024.
The European Centre for Press and Media Freedom and Reporters Without Borders condemned Dimitriadis’ legal claims as a SLAPP (“strategic lawsuit against public participation”) — a harassment suit — but the threat that such cases pose to a small site like Reporters United is very real.
“We find ourselves again at a time when just because you’re investigating the government, the state sees you as an enemy and it is turning against you by tapping your phone, physically watching you, legally threatening you, and, finally, suing you,” says Leontopoulos.
Chondrogiannos agrees: “Even if you win the case, there are still legal costs to cover and you’ll likely spend too much time preparing for the court.” So far, however, Reporters Without Borders has covered a significant part of the team’s legal expenses.
Apart from the legal action, Reporters United also became a target for spear phishing — a targeted campaign in which an attacker uses information about your employees or company to make their messages more plausible. Although Leontopoulos is concerned about these efforts to intimidate the team, he says that they are also a sign that Reporters United’s journalism matters.
“For the first two years of our existence no one paid attention to us,” he notes. “We’re gradually seeing that public actors and authorities are not only starting to respond to our findings but they’re also attacking us.”
Filling in the Gaps
In the last few years, Greece’s economic fortunes have been on the upswing after years of austerity in the wake of the 2009 financial crisis. Still, widespread tax evasion and corruption remain. The Mediterranean country of nearly 11 million has powerful tourism and shipping industries, entrenched oligarchs, heated disputes with neighboring Turkey, and growing Chinese investment, but the country’s news media has largely failed to serve as a public watchdog.
Greece ranked 108th out of 180 — lowest in the European Union — in the Reporters Without Borders’ 2022 Press Freedom Index. Having fallen nearly 40 spots from the year before, Greece now ranks just above Zambia, and a few spots higher than El Salvador. Even before the wiretapping affair, Greek authorities were criticized for arresting journalists to prevent them from interviewing migrants. More recently, the killing of prominent crime reporter Giorgios Karaivaz in 2021, which remains unresolved, represented a low point for press freedom in the country.
Meanwhile, freedom of information (FOI) requests are not a common practice in Greece and remain a legal black hole for public authorities. “Not only are my FOI requests being ignored but there’s an overall downward slope to how our work is perceived compared to 15 years ago, with many of my queries not even getting returned,” says Myrto Boutsi, a member of Reporters United.
Government employees handling FOI requests are often either not informed of their legal obligation to respond or they are not media-trained, adds Chondrogiannos, noting that in most cases the flow of information coming from the state depends on who is asking. “In Greece, we say that reporters will have sources speaking to them because they are not printing what they don’t want published, not because they do,” he says.
Experts point out that media capture, as in many other countries, has taken root in Greece. The widespread financial dependency of the country’s press on private funding, as well as its ownership by individuals with ties to politicians and businessmen, has meant that few mainstream outlets will do in-depth investigative reporting on the country’s politics. It may also explain why these establishment media outlets mostly avoided covering the wiretapping scandal for so long.
“In Greece the press has been free since 1974 [the last year of the military junta], but it’s not independent,” adds Christopoulos, who is also a former president of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). “There might be no censorship laws anymore, but the ownership of major media is controlled by an oligarchy, which falsifies their freedom.”
Building from the Ground Up
Aside from its investigative reporting work, which focuses on corruption, politics, and the environment, Reporters United aims to support Greek journalists through training initiatives and by operating as a publishing hub. It has hosted collaborations with other organizations, offered free workshops on FOI rules and digital safety, and it has fueled other investigations with its own, frequent FOI requests.
The small core team that runs Reporters United operates on a yearly budget of just €50,000 (US$54,000), which is mostly self-funded and supplemented by revenue from collaborations with foreign media. The team does not accept funding from the Greek state, charitable organizations with a strong presence in the country, or foreign philanthropic groups. This practice limits the site’s potential growth but Reporters United states on its website that it only wants to operate in a truly independent and transparent way.
“This strict funding policy is the only way to guarantee our independence and it is what sets us apart as either very cool or very naïve,” says Leontopoulos.
While the team itself is small, the outlet relies on a network of reporters and collaborations to produce content. Until the launch of its own website in October 2020, Reporters United published its stories and investigations via media partners in Greece and abroad, including Mediapart (France), BuzzFeed (Germany), and VICE (Germany).
Its partnership with Investigate Europe, a team of journalists from 10 European countries, has been a significant source of revenue, and enabled the team to participate in cross-border projects, including exposés on child migrants detained in Europe, the production of the vaccine for COVID-19, and fossil fuel subsidies. This year, it is hoping to launch Greekleaks, the country’s first platform for whistleblowers.
Data investigations are part of its arsenal as well, with Reporters United taking part in the cross-border investigation Cities for Rent, which won the 2022 European Press Prize innovation award. Most recently, the team has been updating a data-driven initiative to report on ship owners around the world, tracking tankers that are transporting oil from Russia amid the war in Ukraine.
Looking ahead, Leontopoulos wants to strengthen Reporters United’s financial independence. To help in that effort, the group recently launched a crowdfunding campaign. And to increase transparency, he explains that the site has begun publicizing a list of significant donations and aims to publish detailed financial figures in the near future.
“Apart from expanding our network of reporters, our main goal is to convince readers to trust us,” says Chondrogiannos. “We can only maintain our independence if we have public support.”
As the wiretapping scandal rolls on, the role of independent investigative outlets uncovering the issue has not gone unnoticed. Raising a motion of no confidence against the government, the leader of Greece’s main opposition party decried state officials who had “hounded” investigative reporters who sought to uncover the story.
The government survived the vote, but Reporters United is determined to continue investigating. “We have so much to report on, the story is unfolding day by day and we’re very busy, but the main challenge for us remains the viability of our project itself,” says Leontopoulos. “Staying in business might be a boring goal looking ahead, but it’s crucial for us.”
Ero Partsakoulaki is a journalist with experience reporting on financial markets, investigative reporting, and with video production. She’s currently a private equity reporter for Mergermarket. A graduate of Columbia Journalism School in New York, her work has appeared in outlets in the US and Greece.