The Media Today

A rail disaster spurs a media reckoning

March 14, 2023
Greece's Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis arrives to attend an European Union Summit with all 27 EU leaders at The European Council Building in Brussels on December 16, 2021. - The lightning spread of Omicron in Europe and elsewhere has added a sense of urgency to an EU summit on December 16, 2021, with leaders struggling to present a united, bloc-wide approach. (Photo by Kenzo Tribouillard / POOL / AFP) (Photo by KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Two weeks ago, a passenger train and a freight train collided on the line between Athens and Thessaloniki, in Greece. Several carriages of the passenger train derailed; some caught fire. At least fifty-seven people were killed, many of them students returning home from seasonal festivities in Athens. Initially, senior Greek politicians attributed the crash primarily to human error—a narrative, Greek media-watchers told me, that was bolstered by major outlets whose coverage is often favorable toward the governing party. But as public anger rose, the government U-turned, at least in part. Last weekend, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the conservative prime minister, apologized in a Facebook post, and acknowledged that the crash couldn’t have happened if basic safety measures had been in place. “In the Greece of 2023,” he wrote, “it is not possible for two trains to run on opposite sides of the same track without anyone noticing.”

Mitsotakis wasn’t the only one to offer an apology after the crash. So, too, did a prominent journalists’ union in Athens, which suggested that journalists themselves must take their share of the responsibility. In a statement, the union said that major Greek news organizations had largely downplayed repeated warnings from rail unions that the system was unsafe, and blamed what it called “structural problems” plaguing the Greek media landscape. “As long as the media distance themselves from their mission to serve as a check on power, as long as the prioritization of news is dominated by criteria unrelated to the defense of the public interest, as long as media companies are limited to operating simply as businesses and in terms of television ratings and traffic, as long as journalists are limited in investigating, then the institutional guarantees for the functioning of the state will be weakened,” the statement said.

Prior to the crash, warning signs about the perilous state of Greece’s rail system had flashed increasingly brightly. For years, it has been underfunded and understaffed—a legacy, in no small part, of the debt crisis of the past decade, during which international creditors demanded that Greece sell off its state rail company as one condition of a bailout. (The company is now in Italian hands.) Key sections of track have faulty remote-signaling systems, forcing employees to communicate by walkie-talkie. An EU-wide system to improve rail safety and efficiency was supposed to be fully implemented years ago, but wasn’t (even though the EU ponied up funds); last year, a senior official resigned in protest. Then there were the increasingly dire warnings from the rail unions. In the aftermath of a relatively minor incident just weeks before the recent crash, one union wrote that it wouldn’t “wait for the accident which is about to happen to see everyone shed crocodile tears.”

There was some media coverage of these warnings prior to the crash. A year ago, the journalist Eurydice Bersi published a series of stories about the state of the Greek rail system, including on its understaffing problem, for Reporters United, a Greek investigative journalism network—part of a transnational project coordinated by a collective called Investigate Europe. Bersi’s stories ran on the front page of EfSyn, a left-leaning national newspaper—but they, along with other rail stories, were rarely picked up by bigger print titles or TV and radio networks. “In Greece, we say that one cuckoo doesn’t bring spring: It’s not that there were no reports… it’s that the emphasis was not there,” Bersi told me. “When [the recent crash] happened, and the entire country was in shock, my reaction was, Oh, it did happen in the end.”

Greek journalists with whom I spoke for this piece told me that the relative lack of attention paid to the rail-safety story in recent years reflects a broader deficit of hard-hitting accountability journalism in the country’s mass media. Bersi told me that major outlets have never really invested in investigative journalism (“The first time I saw an investigative team inside a newspaper was in the movie Spotlight, and I’ve worked in the mainstream press for twenty-four years,” she said), while other observers stressed that the Greek media industry as a whole was hammered by the debt crisis, which led to sharp cuts and spurred a further consolidation of media ownership among powerful business interests, many of them with ties to the political elite. Media scrutiny of powerful people has been “hollowed out,” a delegation of lawmakers from the EU’s Parliament concluded last week, after visiting Greece to assess the health of its democratic institutions. “Media ownership by a small number of oligarchs negatively impacts media pluralism, resulting in dramatic under-reporting on certain topics.”

If prominent outside observers have recently said that Greece is the worst country in Europe for rail safety, the same applies to media freedom; last year, Reporters Without Borders ranked Greece 108 (out of a hundred and eighty countries worldwide) on its World Press Freedom Index, twenty-three places below Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. Rail infrastructure and media infrastructure, clearly, are very different things, but Greek media-watchers told me that both have been eroded to the point where neither is working as it should; that the legacy of the debt crisis is at least partly to blame in both cases; and that both cases reflect a broader sense of institutional failure in the country. When I noted the comparison to Yiannis Baboulias, a journalist who has written about Greek media for CJR, he replied, “It’s the same thing.”

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Press-freedom concerns in Greece are not new, but the situation seems to have deteriorated since Mitsotakis’s government took power in 2019. Some of the threats to journalists’ work have been crude, even physical: in 2021, a Dutch journalist based in Athens was pelted with a rock after accusing Mitsotakis of lying (as Baboulias reported for CJR); the same year, Giorgos Karaivaz, a prominent crime reporter, was shot dead outside his home. The investigation into his murder since appears to have stalled. During the pandemic, the government passed a law criminalizing the dissemination of “fake news,” not only on public health but in matters of economics and defense. More recently, multiple journalists have discovered that the Greek security services wiretapped their phones. One found that his phone had also been compromised by Predator, a potent spyware tool, somewhat similar to Pegasus, made by the Athens-based firm of a former Israeli general. (The government has denied using Predator.)

Some threats to journalism in Greece have been more insidious. Some media companies have become increasingly financially dependent on the government—during the pandemic, officials were accused of disproportionately steering advertising contracts to more favorable outlets. And when scandalous stories do blow up, they are often sharply politicized, reflecting a much broader trend across the Greek media landscape. As Baboulias and others reported for CJR ahead of the last Greek elections, the revolving door between politics and media has swung increasingly fast in recent years, not least on the political right.

The next Greek elections must be held within the next few months. Mitsotakis was reportedly gearing up to call them. And then the train crash happened. “Because this was such a tragic story—because there were people who had just lost their children, their relatives, their friends coming live on TV and speaking to anchors back in Athens—it felt like that broke news anchors and journalists in Athens in a way that I haven’t seen in the past,” Lydia Emmanouilidou, an independent journalist who has covered the crash for NPR, told me. “I saw an anger and frustration.”

Since the crash, Emmanouilidou has been tracking the reaction of young Greeks on TikTok and has seen, in their posts, an unusually high degree of criticism of media coverage of the disaster, with young people, for example, slamming TV reporters for thrusting cameras in the faces of grieving relatives without first asking for permission; Bersi spoke of a broader societal “blowback” against mainstream media at the moment. All this has added up to a moment of self-reflection among at least some Greek journalists, not least at the Athens journalists’ union, which, in addition to its statement apologizing for inadequate past coverage, has called on its members to rally in solidarity with striking unions, and is itself organizing a strike tomorrow to push for public-interest journalism and better working conditions for journalists. All this, some observers told me, has represented a departure for the union. Baboulias described the apology statement as “the first decent thing they’ve done in thirteen-odd years.”

The crash has hit close to home for many across Greek society, including its journalists—and especially among those who are relatively close in age to the students who were killed. Baboulias told me that he himself had taken the same journey as a student. “The people who are on our screens, sitting in their studios in Athens, are humans, too,” Emmanouilidou told me. “They have to take public transportation sometimes. Me and my friends, we were looking at each other and thinking, as people who take the metro, Are we just alive out of luck?


Other notable stories:

  • With the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank still driving the US news cycle, Brian Stelter shared advice, for The Atlantic, on how the press should—and shouldn’t—cover bank runs. “Journalists should be the verification layer for consumers, helping their audience separate their fears from the facts by reporting what they actually know,” he wrote. CNN’s Oliver Darcy spoke about the same topic with Andrew Ross Sorkin, of the Times. “You don’t want to cause a run on a bank,” Sorkin said—but if everyone is running, and has reason to, then “I think it’s important that the public understands what’s happening.”
  • Starts With Us, a group dedicated to tackling extreme division in US politics, is out with a new study, conducted in partnership with researchers at George Mason University, finding that around the time of the midterms last year, “hyper-partisan politicians received more than four times the coverage their bipartisan colleagues did.” When “the crucial work of bipartisan problem solving gets this dramatically overlooked,” Tom Fishman, the CEO of Starts With Us, said, “citizens despair and disengage.”
  • Over the weekend, a bomb went off at an awards ceremony for journalists in Mazar-e- Sharif, a city in northern Afghanistan. The blast killed a security guard and wounded at least eight other people—five of them journalists, three of them children—and came days after a bombing in the same city killed Daud Muzmal, the Taliban governor of the local province. ISIS has claimed responsibility for both attacks; the AP has more.
  • For CJR, the journalist Anjan Sundaram recounts his perilous journey to cover a war in the Central African Republic. Sundaram found the obscurity of the war in Western media coverage “galling,” he writes, but this obscurity “made it hard to justify a reporting trip, which would require leaving my family behind. I also found it difficult to persuade editors to commission a story. ‘Which central African republic?’ they asked.”
  • And The New Yorker’s Zach Helfand chronicles how a feud at the WestView News, a paper in New York’s Greenwich Village, led to the emergence of a rival. “Suppose you, in your advanced age, had a newspaper that Sarah Jessica Parker praised as the best newspaper in the Village,” George Capsis, the News’s publisher, said, before attacking his rival: “And Arthur Schwartz copies it. Copies it! It is the most despicable.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.