A phone surveillance scandal targeting journalists and a prominent politician has been simmering for some time now in Greece.
Friday, August 5 marked a serious escalation, leading to the possibility of early elections. Two resounding resignations within the space of an hour have altered the political landscape, but while most international media initially focused on the resignation of the National Intelligence Service (EYP) Chief, Panagiotis Kontoleon, the other is of greater significance.
Grigoris Dimitriadis, the General Secretary to the Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis (and also his nephew) has been forced to resign under the weight of the scandal. Since then, and over the following seventy-two hours, his name has consistently been among the top ten trending topics on Greek Twitter.
Apart from Dimitriadis being a close blood relation of Mitsotakis, he was also one of his very closest associates. His right hand man many would say, which might even be an understatement. The former General Secretary was widely regarded as the éminence grise of the government apparatus, and the ruling right-wing party Nea Dimokratia
His resignation was widely seen as an admission of guilt, an interpretation certainly voiced by the leader of Syriza (the main Opposition party), Alexis Tsipras, who seized the opportunity to blame Mitsotakis himself.
Οι ηχηρές παραιτήσεις υπό το βάρος του σκανδάλου των παρακολουθήσεων αποτελούν ομολογία ενοχής και επιβεβαιώνουν τις ευθύνες του ίδιου του Πρωθυπουργού.
Ο κ. Μητσοτάκης οφείλει να δώσει εξηγήσεις στον ελληνικό λαό για το δικό του «watergate».
Είναι ζήτημα Δημοκρατίας.
— Αλέξης Τσίπρας – Alexis Tsipras (@atsipras) August 5, 2022
It is another political leader, however, who is at the epicenter of this crisis. Nikos Androulakis is the president of the third largest political party in the Greek parliament PASOK (Panhellenic Socialist Movement). He caused consternation on July 26, when he filed a complaint with the Supreme Court of Greece, over an attempt by unknown actors to hack his mobile phone, using illegal Predator spyware.
The attempt was originally uncovered by chance, through a routine security check at the European Parliament, as Androulakis is also an MEP. This revelation made front page news, and brought prime time TV mainstream coverage, to an affair that had been brewing for some time before Androulakis filed his complaint.
There had been extensive reporting away from mainstream media, which was easily dismissed by government spokespeople, on electronic surveillance targeting two journalists, Stavros Malichoudis and Thanasis Koukakis.
What is also at stake here is no less than the freedom and independence of the press. The aforementioned Stavros Malichoudis is a member of Reporters United, an independent network of journalists, integral to the investigative reporting that led to the Dimitriadis and Kontoleon resignations. Their most impactful articles, which put General Secretary Dimitriadis into the frame of the scandal, were also published in the popular left-wing daily newspaper Efimerida ton Syntakton.
Another small media outlet which was involved in the series of revelations is the subscription-based Inside Story, which was the first to publish the findings of Citizen Lab, which broke the story about the hacking of Thanasis Koukakis’s phone with Predator spyware. Koukakis is an internationally published Greek journalist, who was investigating matters of financial corruption.
Today @billmarczak from @citizenlab informed a special committee of the European Parliament about my surveillance through the Predator spyware of Cytrox (Intellexa). He also referred to the revelations of @reporters_gr for my surveillance by the Greek NSA. https://t.co/J27PVZ02rw pic.twitter.com/FCaz4xwLhg
— Thanasis Koukakis (@nasoskook) April 19, 2022
In November 2019, he published an article in the Financial Times revealing that the Mitsotakis administration had amended legislation in a way that created a more favorable environment for money laundering.
Shortly after stepping down from his position as General Secretary, Grigoris Dimitriadis filed a law suit against Reporters United, Efimerida ton Syntakton and Thanasis Koukakis. This kind of prosecution is the epitome of a SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation).
The five worst countries in the EU for media freedom are:
🇬🇷 1. Greece
🇧🇬 2. Bulgaria
🇭🇺 3. Hungary
🇲🇹 4. Malta
🇵🇱 5. Poland
Data: Reporters Without Borders annual World Press Freedom Indexhttps://t.co/osg5RRQSLd
— POLITICOEurope (@POLITICOEurope) May 3, 2022
The Grim Reality for Journalism in Greece
Greece was recently ranked 108th out of 180 countries in the annual World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) at the end of last April, having dropped a staggering 38 places from last year, thereby becoming the lowest ranked EU member state.
The RSF uses a variety of metrics when compiling its index:
The degree of freedom available to journalists in 180 countries and regions is determined by pooling the responses of experts to a questionnaire devised by RSF. This qualitative analysis is combined with quantitative data on abuses and acts of violence against journalists during the period evaluated. The criteria used in the questionnaire are pluralism, media independence, media environment and self-censorship, legislative framework, transparency, and the quality of the infrastructure that supports the production of news and information.
Reporters Without Borders identified many problematic areas and important violations in regard to media freedom and independence in Greece, with the most shocking being the unresolved murder of the influential journalist Giorgos Karaivaz, who was gunned down in broad daylight outside his home on April 9, 2021, after more than a dozen bullets were shot at him, with ten landing on his body.
The French newspaper Liberation described how he “was investigating a number of cases that concerned members of the ruling party and rings of the criminal underworld.” His most recent investigations right before the assassination “were touching closely upon the function of the State in Greece, such as with the case of Dimitris Lignadis.”
Lignadis, a famous Greek theatre actor/director known for his right-wing leanings “was appointed without transparency [head of the Greek National Theatre], six weeks after the electoral victory of N.D.”
Lignadis was accused and has since been convicted on two counts of raping minors. This scandal had captivated public attention and “for several weeks had undermined the ruling party of Nea Dimokratia, many of whose members were alleged to maintain close personal ties with this man of the theatre”.
The same Liberation article recalls that “according to many observers, Lignadis had political protection, while one day before he was murdered, Giorgos Karaivaz had gone even further, claiming on television that Dimitris Lignadis was given time to destroy critical evidence”.
To this day, the case of his murder remains unsolved and there is a lingering suspicion that it will remain as such.
The case of the Giorgos Karaivaz assassination is merely the tip of an iceberg of an increasingly dangerous environment for the practice of journalism in Greece.
The government of Nea Dimokratia has been repeatedly criticized, within Greece and abroad, for establishing unprecedented control over the vast majority of mainstream media. This is common knowledge to most people living in the country, and a recurring subject on social media platforms where State control is much more limited.
Part of the explanation is merely structural. It has long been this case that the major part of the mainstream media in Greece, especially television channels and legacy newspapers, are owned or controlled indirectly by shipping magnates, whose tentacles reach into various other areas of the economy. These interests naturally align with the ruling party’s neoliberal, deregulating agenda.
🗨️Continued efforts to keep criteria for #PetsaList a secret only increase concerns of #pressfreedom orgs about Greece’s problematic system for financing of media & apparent efforts to disproportionately funnel money to media supportive of the government during #COVID19 crisis. pic.twitter.com/UGOVgQNFRl
— IPI – The Global Network for Independent Media (@globalfreemedia) June 21, 2022
What has been exceptional, however, under the current administration is the extent of the corruption, typified by what became known in Greece as the “Petsas list”, which takes its name from Stelios Petsas, the current Alternate Minister of Interior and former Deputy Minister to the Prime Minister and government spokesman.
This was a list of media outlets – some of which were tiny and insignificant until that point – which, during the pandemic received significant state funding under the pretext of informing the public about Covid-19
The list favored outlets that were already, or were set up to be, staunch supporters of the government. This has been regarded by political opposition and most of civil society as a blatant – and largely successful – attempt to consolidate control over the narrative of public discourse.
At the same time, SLAPPs have become more and more commonplace, with a wide array of targets, ranging from the few remaining antagonistic media, to even individuals on Twitter and other social media platforms.
During demonstrations, photojournalists are increasingly physically assaulted by the police and obstructed as much as possible from recording their brutality, which is more prevalent than ever.
— AlexisDaloumis (@AlexisDaloumis) July 28, 2022
Overall, any reporter scrutinising authority is likely to be treated as an enemy of the State. It is often the case that independent Greek journalists have to quote reputable foreign media to highlight relevant Greek news and analyses that is otherwise buried by the mainstream domestically, or dismissed as fake news and politically motivated defamation.
— Georgia Nikoletou (@Nikoletoug) July 28, 2022
A Provisional Timeline of Events
This wiretapping scandal is a shady and convoluted affair, involving many different actors. Politicians, journalists, businessmen and corporations have all been involved in a sprawling and perplexing web of relations and antagonisms.
The initial coverage from international media has been mostly superficial. This article will endeavour to fill in some gaps. Importantly, there are two different kinds of wiretapping that have been taking place: technically legal ones and those that are entirely illegal.
The legal ones have to be authorized by a District Attorney and are conducted under the authority of the National Intelligence Service (known as EYP). A critical characteristic of these is that they are bound to function in an “old school” way of surveillance that cannot penetrate end-to-end encryption apps such as Signal, Viber, Telegram etc.
Which brings us to the illegal ones. Advanced spyware like Pegasus and Predator have a different penetration capacity, one that completely takes over the device and can monitor any action, including any known kind of encrypted communication, as well as the function of the microphone and camera. Any use of such spyware remains a criminal offence under Greek law.
To lay out the relevant information, we have to go back to the beginning of the current government’s tenure in July 2019. The very first piece of legislation the newly elected government of Kyriakos Mitsotakis passed through the Greek Parliament brought the National Intelligence Service (EYP) and the State Media under direct control of his own office.
This in itself raised some eyebrows, but the nomination of Panagiotis Kontoleon as Chief of EYP generated widespread bafflement and even suspicion. Kontoleon is a man without any higher education degree, prior experience in politics or the law, or any other relevant skills or qualifications for such an office. He is a former private security guard, who ascended the hierarchy of the company he was working for, while always remaining under the patronage of his boss and owner of the company, Andreas Paterakis.
According to sources on the peripheries of mainstream Greek media he was characterised as a “Yes Man” and a “backstabber”. The justification given for his appointment was simply that he was “a person with connections to the American Embassy and a choice of the Mitsotakis environment”.
On August 12, 2020, Thanasis Koukakis filed a complaint to the Hellenic Authority for Communication Security and Privacy (ADAE). He cited reasonable suspicions of having been the target of wiretapping on his phone. He did not receive any response from the Authority until almost a year later.
On March 31, 2021, the government passed legislation, under an emergency procedure which it claimed was in response to the pandemic. Amendment 826/145 changed the rules in regard to legal wiretappings.
ADAE is no longer allowed to inform citizens upon their request as to whether their communications having been monitored by EYP, after the completion of the surveillance period. A crucial detail is that the new law is retroactive, covering complaints filed before its enactment.
On July 29 2021, ADAE finally responded to Thanasis Koukakis’s complaint stating that “no event was found which would constitute a breach of the legislation on the confidentiality of communications.”
In December 2021 the thread concerning the Predator part of this story begins, when two different researches, one from Toronto University’s Citizen Lab and one from Meta exposed the expansion in the use of Predator spyware in various countries including Greece. The news attracted next to zero attention in mainstream Greek media, even after Inside Story started covering the issue in January 2022.
On April 11, the same outlet uncovered the first verified instance of phone hacking of an EU citizen, as proven by the examination of Citizen Lab. It was Thanasis Koukakis.
A few days later, on April 15, Reporters United published an article on how Thanasis Koukakis was legally wiretapped by the National Intelligence Service before being hacked with Predator. It is also uncovered that this legal surveillance stopped abruptly on August 12, 2020, the exact same day that the journalist had filed his complaint to ADAE.
On May 25, Inside Story struck again with a thorough report, demonstrating the points of connection, though an intricate web of various shady individuals and dubious legal entities, between the Greek State and the Israeli company Intellexa, which is selling the Predator spyware and is established in Greece. Another Greek company called Krikel, founded in Athens in 2017, is also entangled in this web as a connection point to Intellexa.
On June 3, the plot thickened further after Reporters United released another article, which was simultaneously published in Efimerida ton Sintakton. This was the first time that the journalistic investigation placed Grigoris Dimitriadis decisively in the frame of the scandal, highlighting how his business dealings put him in close contact with people directly or indirectly connected to companies which are merchandizing Predator and other spyware; namely the aforementioned Intellexa and Krikel.
On July 26, the issue gained massive traction with all mainstream media and entered the forefront of the political agenda, after Nikos Androulakis officially filed his complaint to the Supreme Court.
On August 4, Reporters United delivered a critical blow to Grigoris Dimitriadis with a new article, in which more evidence surfaced indicating links between the former General Secretary to the Prime Minister and the merchants of the illegal spyware that was used against Androulakis and Koukakis. The key figure in this investigation is the entrepreneur Felix Bizios, who has held managerial and consultant positions in both Intellexa and Krikel. His brother, Panagiotis Bizios appears to have had direct business dealings with Grigoris Dimitriadis.
On August 5, Grigoris Dimitradis stepped down from his office and minutes afterwards, Panagiotis Kontoleon followed suit. At the same time, the government admitted that Androulakis was also legally wiretapped by EYP, while he was campaigning for the presidency of PASOK and until two days after becoming its leader. According to reporting in mainstream Greek media, EYP was under the direct responsibility of Dimitriadis.
Grigoris Dimitriadis has vehemently denied any involvement with the use of the illegal spyware, and the government of Nea Dimokratia has asserted repeatedly that the two cases – of legal and illegal wiretappings – are entirely separate. They have also claimed that both resignations have nothing to do with the Predator affair. The whole spectrum of the opposition, however, remains unconvinced.
Right after stepping down from his position, the former General Secretary took legal action against Efimerida ton Syntakton, Reporters United and Thanasis Koukakis, claiming a total of over half a million euro on the grounds of defamation. International journalist organizations responded with statements of solidarity.
#Greece: Solidarity with @reporters_gr, @EFSYNTAKTON & @nasoskook. After revelatory investigative reporting on #Predator surveillance, which led to resignation of intelligence chief & PM's secretary general, they now face #SLAPP lawsuits of €100k, €150k & €250k respectively. pic.twitter.com/UoGFto2nts
— IPI – The Global Network for Independent Media (@globalfreemedia) August 5, 2022
⚡️#Greece 🇬🇷: RSF is alarmed by the abusive lawsuits initiated by Grigoris Dimitriadis, the nephew of PM @kmitsotakis against journalists who have established a link between him and a company selling #Predator spy software.👇https://t.co/K9pZMenAPn
— RSF (@RSF_inter) August 6, 2022
On the same day, Sophie in ‘t Veld, who is the rapporteur of the PEGA commission, which was formed by the European Parliament to investigate the use of advanced spyware in Europe, gave an interview to Inside Story, where she mentions among other things that there is widespread abuse in several countries, including Greece and that it wouldn’t make sense to assume that the Greek government is not involved, as there is no other serious alternative scenario.
Over the following weekend events took a grim and rather farcical turn as a game of deliberate, yet ultimately clumsy, strategic leaks to government friendly media unfolded, while the Prime Minister Mitsotakis, who had stayed entirely silent throughout the whole affair, was reported (and photographed) while on holiday in Crete.
A rumour had been circulating for some days that Androulakis was spied on by EYP upon the request of foreign intelligence services. It was then leaked that those counties were Ukraine and Armenia and the concern was that as an MEP, Androulakis had had some suspicious contacts with people that represent Chinese interests. Over the weekend, however, both the embassies of Armenia and Ukraine vehemently denied any such request.
1/2 Bizarre times! International organization accuses the victim of war of violating the laws of war. Foreign intelligence accuses Ukraine of tapping on its citizens
Let me point this out – 🇺🇦 has never requested that from Greek counterpart.These claims are divorced from reality
— Sergii Shutenko (@Sergii_Shutenko) August 7, 2022
As this awkward diplomatic embarrassment was taking place, another thread of hearsay was unfolding with notable political actors involved.
It primarily revolved around Nikos Romanos, the head of the press bureau of Nea Dimokratia, who made a very dubious statement on the radio, urging Nikos Androulakis to have the courage to reveal the information he would receive at the briefing from EYP in regard to his surveillance; “as some of it is sensitive”, he declared suggestively.
This statement caused further outrage, as it created the strong impression that Romanos himself was aware of some of the content of the surveillance, and it was widely perceived as a thinly veiled attempt at blackmail.
The Press Bureau chief later denied the allegations, claimed that his words were distorted, and that he was a victim of fake news and threatened legal action.
While it is true, that some news outlets added the word “personal” (which he had not used) on top of “sensitive”, his statement still raises serious questions. Moreover, it coincided with another series of events, suggesting a coordinated action.
Thus, Failos Kranidiotis, a far-right politician and former member of Nea Dimokratia, posted a tweet on Saturday that was undoubtedly referring to Nikos Androulakis, implying that he is an abuser of women and had been involved in sexual scandals.
Θεωρητικό κουίζ: Όταν σαπίζεις στο ξύλο τις συντρόφους σου,τις φωτογραφίζεις δαρμένες, η μία σε πήγε δικαστικά, έβαλες την ουρά στα σκέλια να το πνίξεις και άλλη μία σε έχει κάνει ρόμπα και τρέμεις πότε θα σκάσει στα ΜΜΕ, έχεις θέση στην δημόσια ζωή, μούτρα να κάνεις τον τιμητή;
— Φαήλος Κρανιδιώτης (@failosK) August 6, 2022
The tweet was retweeted by Omada Alitheias (Truth Group) which is widely regarded as a crucial component of Nea Dimokratia’s propaganda machine on social media, only to be deleted after the backlash it caused. Many lesser right-wing social media accounts were also disseminating the same rumour.
Beyond social media, however, there was also an actual publication. A well-known gossip tabloid called Espresso, published a front page report about a sex scandal involving a “prominent politician” who had had various extramarital affairs, some of which involved physical abuse.
Nikos Androulakis gave an angry response to all the veiled allegations, using very strong language condemning the government.
Τρεις μέρες μετά την αποκάλυψη ότι η ΕΥΠ παρακολουθούσε το κινητό μου τηλέφωνο,την ίδια περίοδο μάλιστα που έγινε απόπειρα παγίδευσης του και με το #Predator, που έχει τη δυνατότητα να σε βιντεοσκοπεί 24 ώρες το 24ωρο,η κυβέρνηση κατακλύζει με χυδαίες διαρροές τον δημόσιο διάλογο
— Nikos Androulakis (@androulakisnick) August 7, 2022
Just a quarter of an hour later, Alexis Tsipras followed suit.
Οι στοχευμένες «διαρροές» του προπαγανδιστικού μηχανισμού της ΝΔ για τον Νίκο Ανδρουλάκη, επιβεβαιώνουν τους χειρότερους φόβους μας: Οι αυτουργοί των παρακολουθήσεων συνδέονται με πρακτικές μαφίας.
Ο κ. Μητσοτάκης να κλείσει τη βάνα του οχετού, πριν πνιγεί μέσα του ο ίδιος.
— Αλέξης Τσίπρας – Alexis Tsipras (@atsipras) August 7, 2022
August 9 was the day when the Prime Minister was finally expected to address the issue. At 14.00 hours, Kyriakos Mitsotakis addressed the nation in a short video. He reiterated what had already been asserted by his associates, namely that he knew nothing about the surveillance of Nikos Androulakis, or else he wouldn’t have allowed it and promised to make changes in the way the wiretapping protocol works, as well as in regard to the accountability of EYP.
He also praised EYP’s importance despite what he described as a “slip”, and ominously stated that “there are many enemies of the nation that would prefer a weak National Intelligence Service. And if some dark forces outside of Greece are plotting any scheme to destabilize the country, they should know that Greece is powerful and institutionally ironclad.”
His speech was received very critically, not just by the political opposition, but also by domestic and foreign media, while social media had a field day deconstructing it. He was accused of equivocation and evasiveness, leaving most questions unanswered. We still don’t know why and by whose orders Nikos Androulakis was surveilled – or the two journalists for that matter, which he didn’t refer to.
Notably, he never made any mention of Predator.
David Langwallner arges that freedom of speech, a central hallmark of a democracy encouraging diversity and tolerance, is under serious threat from social media.https://t.co/DacsViiSF4@broadsheet_ie @BowesChay @MattChristmas @danieleidiniph1 @davidmcw @liamherrick @LiamDeegan3
— CassandraVoices (@VoicesCassandra) March 14, 2022
Hubris and Nemesis…
There is still a lot that remains to be proven in this case. Expect further revelations. What is clear is that something is rotten in the higher echelons of Greece politics.
The government has been eager to divert, as much as possible, any attention from the Predator aspect of this sordid affair and address only the official wiretappings of EYP, which were technically legal, as they assert at every opportunity.
They have repeatedly denied any government involvement in the use of Predator, leaving it to be treated as a criminal affair between private citizens. This explanation seems completely implausible.
It is important that we do not allow the use of such illegal spyware to be ignored. Not only in Greece, but in Hungary, Spain, Poland or anywhere else. The freedom and independence of the press must be upheld. Indeed, these revelations would not have been possible without the perseverance of a handful of investigative journalists.
The bravest ones are now facing the threat of being unable to carry on with their work, through the vindictive use of SLAPPs coming from an offspring of Greek political aristocracy.
The Greek government has grown accustomed to very limited scrutiny and to dominating media discourse. It could be a game changer if they are to receive more critical attention from international media.
It has not been proven (yet) that Grigoris Dimitriadis is guilty of the crimes that he is suspected of. Nor is it the case that all the reporters involved in the coverage of this story are equally independent and true to the mission, especially those that jumped into it only in the last weeks. But what is certain enough, is that there is an encroaching authoritarian corruption attempting to silence, illegally if necessaary, opposition voices.
Dimitriadis’s SLAPP against Reporters United, Efimerida ton Syntakton and Thanasis Koukakis is just such an attempt, and it should be called out for what it is. This is a story is that should be of concern to every reporter in Europe and beyond.