The wiretapping controversy in Greece demonstrates that the administration of Prime Minister Mitsotakis is progressive, but that it is progressively turning to authoritarian measures.

greek prime minister kyriakos mitsotakis
[Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis]

The Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, gave a well-received address to the United States congress in August of this year. He praised the United States and Greece and, most of all, democracy, which he said had its origins in both nations. He referred to both nations as "guardians of democracy" and stated of authoritarian inclinations elsewhere: "We must strengthen our democratic institutions in order to eradicate the sources of the anger and mistrust of our citizenry."

The conservative right-wing party New Democracy (ND) in Greece claims to be leading the country in its response to people' discontent. Many fields are making strides toward digitization. Visits to the appropriate authorities are no longer necessary for completing routine administrative tasks, as they can be done in a fraction of the time and with far more efficiency online. That definitely leaves a lasting impact. The present government's systematic anti-democratic inclinations give the word "strengthening of the institutions" a very new connotation, while the New Democracy portrays itself as the protector of a contemporary, unshakeable, and immaculate democracy.

Extensive international assessments have already been published on how the Greek government handles the systematic pushbacks of migrants. Only the Death in the Aegean report, which is available to German readers without any trouble, and the formerly top-secret OLAF report, which was just released by Der Spiegel, should be addressed at this time. A deeper look reveals, however, that this is not a purely domestic issue, but rather an EU-wide one, with significant European involvement, and one in which the reinforcement of the institution is paramount, most notably in an EU fore closure external policy that pays little attention to human rights.

The authoritarian tendencies of the Mitsotakis government are evident in a wide range of policy areas, including the press, civil liberties (especially the right to informational self-determination), and the role of parliament as a check on the executive branch. The government use both formal laws and non-legal measures to achieve this goal. These features become illustrative and stunning in light of the fact that a wiretapping scandal that might have been the Greek Watergate was mostly forgotten within only a few weeks.

Why did this occur? Current head of the Greek Social Democrats Nikos Androulakis's phone was tapped by the Greek secret service in July, and efforts were made to install the EU-banned Predator espionage software on his mobile device. Unpleasant so far, but within the normal range of events for European democracies. What happened afterwards shows how far the slide toward authoritarianism went.

The first authoritarian change occurred long before the scandal, in the form of a reorganization: The domestic secret agency EYP was immediately subservient to the prime minister upon assuming power, replacing the interior ministry. At the same time, a master's degree is no longer required for the position of head of the secret service, and a bachelor's degree is now considered enough. Word on the street is that this was done so that Mitsotakis could appoint one of his buddies to the position, which is a baseless accusation. The Prime Minister's nephew served as the secretary-general and was in charge of intelligence for the government. These factors show that Prime Minister Mitsotakis was aware of the wiretapping of his political competitor and helped forge a tight relationship between the secret service and himself.

Restrictions on the fundamental right to informational self-determination throughout the EU in the name of "national security" represent a second authoritarian turn. As an MEP, Androulakis had his phone reviewed by a service from the EU Parliament in July 2022; this is how he learned that he had been bugged. Since the relevant Greek statute was revised in the spring of 2021 to remove the need that intercepted people be told about the monitoring after the fact if the purpose for the surveillance was "national security considerations," the Greek authorities were exempt from informing him. There are numerous people like Androulakis: As of the end of 2020, there were 13,751 surveillances conducted for "national security reasons." If the trend continues, that number will likely increase in 2021. In 2020, there were only 3,190 surveillances conducted for legal purposes.

Concerning the third point, the matter has not been clarified by parliament or the law (reminiscent of the scandalous handling in Germany of the evidence of the involvement of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution in the NSU). Due to the wiretapping controversy, both the chief of the secret service, Panagiotis Kontoleon, and the secretary-general to the prime minister, Grigoris Dimitriadis, had to resign from their positions. A legislative commission of inquiry was also established, however its operations were questionable at best. Androulakis's surveillance file was deleted before he could even get started. There was no sustained uproar, no investigations were published in the Greek press, and no action was taken by the Parliamentary Inquiry Committee.

The commission of inquiry did not bother to ask intelligence head Kontoleon or Secretary General Dimitriades for their thoughts on the monitoring or the deletion of papers. However, the former chief of the secret agency was questioned about the government's wiretapping activities. The goal was to show that the leftist SYRIZA administration had spied to legitimate its actions and deflect attention from its wrongdoing. Furthermore, no one involved with spyware usage was called to testify before the committee.

Nikos Androulakis, the victim, spoke on behalf of the corresponding lawmakers. The majority of the ND in parliament deemed the probe to be complete after just four weeks. Now that opposition legislators want to pursue the inquiry in court, they've filed a lawsuit to do so. Intellexa, the firm behind the Predator spyware in Greece, has yet to launch an official inquiry into the prevalence of the program there.

Because of this, former general secretary Grigoris Dimitriadis sued some outlets for publishing false information about him, using a legislation passed in November 2021 that views observers as another another tool to limit journalistic freedom. Any false information "likely to shock or terrify the public, or to impair public trust in the economy, the country's military capabilities, or public health" would be considered a criminal offense under the new law. Up to five years in jail is possible.

The case of Dimitriadis appears to support the concerns of those who say this would not only restrict critical reporting and investigative journalism, but also promote self-censorship on the part of journalists and the media. Thus, we have the carrot and the stick. The already poor environment for independent reporting has worsened since the outbreak, according to a report by the news website Politico. State funds, such as those allocated for an information campaign in response to the epidemic, were given only to media outlets that guaranteed line-toeing reportage. Journalists who report critically face pressure or are bugged if they do so.

The killing of Giorgos Karaivaz highlights the hazardous and unfavorable climate in which Greek journalists operate. The journalist was a famous investigator who covered crime and was killed by contract murderers in the spring of 2021. This issue has been dragged out for quite some time, which illustrates how unimportant protecting journalists is in Greece. The contrast is shown by the murder of Peter de Vries, which occurred nearly simultaneously and similarly in the Netherlands in the summer of 2021; in his instance, suspects were apprehended soon after the crime, and the trial against them started the following summer, in 2022.

It is perhaps not surprising that the Greek mainstream media was sluggish to pick up and report the story given the constraints on press freedom. The media's efforts to distance Mitsotakis from the scandal were especially obvious. According to those with knowledge of the media, the same outlets would have "shot from all guns" under a left-wing administration, reporting on the matter more quickly and thoroughly.

When the government is held to the same standards it has set for itself, the ultimate result is disappointing. The right-wing conservative administration seems to interpret its self-description as "keeper of democracy" solely in terms of a more authoritarian protection of the status quo, with "strengthening the institution" meaning shutting it off from criticism. The Mitsotakis administration has dealt with socioeconomic inequalities and difficulties not by removing them but rather by stifling reporting if it threatens to detract from the government's image of being prosperous, contemporary, and immaculate.

A democratic government is one that publicly acknowledges inequities and seeks to rectify them, and which supports critical media even if certain study findings are unsettling. On the other hand, it is not democratic to muzzle critics in favor of portraying oneself as a great administration with a shiny facade that drips off everything. The counter-campaign has the burden of proving that they are capable of doing more than just talking a good game. With parliamentary elections scheduled for the spring of 2023, she will soon have the chance to accomplish just that.

Authors: Arne Schildber and Dr Anne Dölemeyer
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