Greek officials put forth national security reasons during a European Parliament hearing on Thursday (8 September) to fend off uncomfortable questions about why journalists and opposition politicians had been targeted with surveillance technology.
The Parliament’s committee investigating the use of surveillance technologies (PEGA) zoomed in on Greece, following the revelations of espionage targeting MEP Nikos Androulakis and investigative journalists.
“Greece is a country where in 2021, a single prosecutor that is in charge of the national intelligence service, signed within one year 15,975 decisions to wiretap people for reasons of national security,” Thanasis Koukakis, one of the journalists targetted by surveillance, told the hearing.
Asked about the reasons behind the wiretapping of Androulakis during the hearing, representatives of the Greek authorities deflected the questions for reasons of “confidentiality” and “national security”.
The ruling right-wing government and the national intelligence service are embroiled in the scandal that has shaken the country, with the case of Androulakis, leader of the centre-left opposition party PASOK and member of the European Parliament, attracting particular attention.
Androulakis himself was not invited as a panellist following political tensions, as EURACTIV previously reported. The PASOK leader will be addressing the Parliament on 6 October together with other MEPs who were infected with spyware.
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Surveillance of journalists
The targeted journalists, Stavros Malichudis and Thanasis Koukakis, had been working on stories on corruption and refugee issues while under surveillance.
While Malichudis provided written evidence that the national intelligence services were interested in his journalistic work and sources, the reasons why their phones were wiretapped remain covered under the shield of “national security”.
When a journalist or politician is spied on, all their sources and contacts, who might be more vulnerable, are exposed, too.
For these professions in particular, and also for lawyers or NGOs, it is vital to be able to do their work safely, stressed Sophie in t’Veld, the PEGA committee rapporteur. “It is essential for democracy,” in t’Veld added.
These cases further highlight the dire state of press freedom in Greece. “The fact that my country is so low in the lists of press freedom is not by chance,” Koukakis said.
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While the report raises the alarm over a “systemic press freedom crisis”, the government replies that people are still free to opt what media to follow.
Alleged conflict of interest
In 2019, as one of his first moves after his election, the conservative Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis made the Greek National Intelligence Service (EYP) answer to him directly.
Still, according to the government, Mitsotakis did not know about the targeting of Androulakis by the secret services Mitsotakis did stress the wiretapping was “legal”.
Shortly after the scandal broke, two top officials resigned, the head of the intelligence service, Panagiotis Kontoleon, and the prime minister’s chief of staff and nephew, Grigoris Dimitriadis.
Yet, the representatives of the Greek authorities reiterated at Thursday’s hearing that the Greek government never purchased Predator spyware.
In May 2021, the Greek government changed a law that had been in effect for 27 years to prevent the privacy authority cannot tell someone if they were wiretapped or by whom. Again, national security reasons were invoked to justify the move.
“Wiretapping in Greece has little to do with national security and up to a degree they are executed by a small group that have some common interests, and they are serving those interests,” journalist Koukakis concluded.
Investigation’s next step
The lawmaker in t’Veld said “the only way we’re finding any traces of who ordered the use of predator is by going into the Intellexa offices and confiscating all the material, their computers, servers”. But she stressed that “this has not been done”.
Intellexa is the company distributing the Predator spyware used against Koukakis and Androulakis in Greece.
The Greek parliamentary inquiry into the scandal first convened on Wednesday. However, most MPs decided that all inquiry meetings would be held behind closed doors and remain confidential.
In the meantime, Panos Alexandris, secretary general of justice and human rights at the Justice Ministry, played down the revelations.
“Why it is a scandal? Because it is so expressed in the media? Because some people believe so?”
Instead, Alexandris said at the European Parliament’s hearing that the work of the “independent institutions” should be seen first, before deciding whether there is a problem, and then criminal action will be undertaken by the judiciary.
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The PEGA committee also asked about reports of national intelligence service dossiers on people under surveillance being illegally destroyed.
The Greek media publication Ta Nea reported on Thursday that the records of both Nikos Androulakis and Thanasis Koukakis by the Greek intelligence had been destroyed, citing official information from the Hellenic Authority for Communication Security and Privacy (ADAE).
Even though the files should have been saved for two years under legal provisions, the data “was not stored for technical reasons” after changing interception systems, the report said.
Christos Rammos, ADAE president, strongly denied that this destruction had taken place during the hearing in Brussels.
[Edited by Luca Bertuzzi/Zoran Radosavljevic]