As the right wing rises in Greece, so does violence against journalists

Photojournalist Kostis Ntantamis was injured during an attack at a January 20 protest in Athens. Photo by Giorgos Georgiou/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Last summer, after Greek and Macedonian diplomats signed an accord to put an end to decades of bad blood between the two countries, thousands of nationalist protesters gathered in front of the Greek parliament, an imposing palace overlooking Syntagma Square in Athens. 

Greece had long felt that Macedonia’s name appropriated its history, including the exploits of Alexander the Great, and that it implied expansionist ambitions over a similarly-named area of Greece. Russia had stoked the division, and made the issue one of faith and blood. In a rare victory for the EU and NATO, the two nations came to a peaceful agreement, known as the Prespa Accord for the place it was signed, instead of giving way to the waves of propaganda. Macedonia is now called North Macedonia, and has taken steps to join both the EU and NATO. 

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But the nationalist protesters outside parliament did not see the accord as a victory. Nikolas Kokovlis, a freelance photographer present that day, spotted clashes breaking out and rage directed at Alexis Tsipras, the left-wing Prime Minister, and Panos Kammenos, the defense minister at the time. “Rape Kammenos,” a woman screamed. “Tsipras’s mother is a whore,” a man shouted. Prominent among their number were leaders of the neo-fascist Golden Dawn party, which has 15 parliamentary seats and is on trial for a litany of alleged crimes, including operating a criminal organization responsible for a wave of violence against migrants and political opponents. 

The protesters began to hurl stones and bottles at rows of shield-wielding riot police guarding the stairways leading to the parliament’s entrance. Soon, heavy chunks of concrete followed. 

Kokovlis, 25, who was on assignment for EfSyn newspaper, had positioned himself to get a shot of a police officer guarding the stairs in front of the parliament when he felt someone claw at his neck, jerking his camera strap and spinning him around. He found himself encircled by 10 masked men holding flag poles and sticks. They accused him of intentionally photographing the uncovered faces of the rioters. They demanded his identification card and his camera. When he refused, they beat and kicked him. 

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“They kept repeating ‘half breed’ because of my skin color,” Kokovlis, who is of Greek-Portuguese ancestry, told CJR, “and they wanted the [memory] card on my camera.” He escaped, but lost his equipment. 

Violence had been a feature of the Macedonia debate, which raged through 2018. A group of protesters in Thessaloniki set a pair of anarchist squats on fire and vandalized the local Holocaust memorial. But as Athens and Skopje moved forward with the accord and protests grew more frequent, threats and targeted attacks on press workers became particularly notable. 

At a time when journalists need more support and protection than ever, certain individuals and groups may seek to exploit the vulnerability that covering protests can bring.

Since then, targeted violence against journalists has only increased. In September 2018, when a fracas broke out between photographers and a protester during a Macedonia rally in Thessaloniki, a second demonstrator reportedly revealed a gun and threatened the photojournalists.

On January 20, 2019, tens of thousands of protesters flooded Syntagma Square yet again to protest the accord. Kostis Ntantamis, a 36-year-old freelance photographer on assignment for Sputnik news agency, saw demonstrators stomp a riot-police officer lying prostrate on the pavement. Ntantamis tightened his gas mask and helmet, and moved into the crowd, saturated in tear gas and smoke from flash grenades. Later, when he turned to leave, a man first stopped him and demanded his camera. Then a group of masked protesters surrounded him and set upon him with flagpoles. 

Lefteris Partsalis, a 32-year-old freelance photographer on assignment for CNN Greece and Xinhua, attempted to intervene. One protester ripped off Partsalis’s gas mask and another tried to wrestle away his camera. As he held on to its plastic body, one of the protesters stabbed his hand with a screwdriver. Others beat him. He broke free and ran. Meanwhile, a group had again attacked Ntantamis, and one man struck him in the head twice with a wooden stick after his helmet fell off. His wounds required 13 stitches. 

“They were going after everybody with a camera,” Partsalis says. 

Another group attacked Thomas Lacobi, an Athens-based La Croix correspondent and documentarian who co-produced Golden Dawn: A Personal Affair, a film that examined the rise of the far-right party through Greece’s economic crisis. “You’re the one who made the film?” one of the men asked Lacobi, he later wrote. They beat him, forced him to delete photographs and video clips from his phone, and smashed his audio recorder.

By the end of that day, at least five photographers and cameramen had been attacked and had their equipment damaged or stolen, the Union of Photojournalists of Greece later said in a statement. “Obviously there is suspicion that this attack could be planned in advance and that our fellow photojournalists covering demonstrations have been targeted,” the union said. 

It “happens with an unpleasant regularity in Greece” and “continues to present a threat,” Tom Gibson, European Union representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, says. “At a time when journalists need more support and protection than ever, certain individuals and groups may seek to exploit the vulnerability that covering protests can bring.”

Hate crimes in general spiked by 14 percent last year and the far right still hopes to capitalize on resentment over the Prespa Accord. On July 7, about a year after the accord was signed, New Democracy—a right-wing party with far-right elements—won a snap general election in Greece. 

Tapping into a swell of nationalist sentiment, the party consistently accused Syriza of having “humiliated” the Greek people by implementing the accord, and New Democracy officials have hinted at using Greece’s veto power to block North Macedonia’s ascension to the EU. 

Ntantamis’ resolve has not been shaken. “When I was taking the beating, I knew that these were the types of photos and footage that need to be shown, to show what kind of people they are, what they do, and how they act,” he says.

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Patrick Strickland is an Athens-based freelance journalist and author. He previously worked as a senior reporter at Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter @P_Strickland_.