In Greece, the line between conservative journalism and political campaigns blurs

May 24, 2019
Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. Photo by European Union 2018 - European Parliament via Flickr.

In February, Adonis Georgiadis, the deputy chairman of New Democracy, Greece’s conservative main opposition party, hosted an annual pie cutting, an old custom meant to bring good luck for the whole year. Prominent party members and hundreds of enthusiastic supporters filled a small municipal stadium in an Athens suburb, while the soundsystem blasted out the main theme from “Requiem for a Dream.” It was so extravagant that pro-government media interpreted the event as a “leadership bid” by the hard-right faction led by Georgiadis and former Prime Minister Antonis Samaras.

In a fiery speech, Georgiadis also told a story that had been going around the internet for a couple of days. The story went that Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras—leader of SYRIZA, the far-left governing party—while on an official visit to Dubai, had popped over to the Maldives with his family for a secret holiday. There, the story goes, he found himself in the middle a political crisis, and had to be rescued by a Saudi “Emir’s” yacht and evacuated in a joint operation by the Greek army and the United Arab Emirate authorities.

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Georgiadis is the Greek equivalent of Alex Jones; for almost 20 years, he sold pseudo-scientific, nationalist books on Greek history—including one anti-Semitic title, “Jews: The Whole Truth”—through his daily show on local TV. The story about Tsipras originated on the daily radio show hosted by Yiorgos Tragkas, a famous and controversial radio and TV journalist, known for his right-wing, inflammatory political commentary. Tragkas had based his story on anonymous sources, giving very little detail. Crucially, he never said when Tsipras’s secret holiday was supposed to have taken place. People assumed he was referring to February 2018, when Yameen Abdul Gayoom, the Maldives’ president at the time, suspended constitutional rights and ordered the arrest of Supreme Court judges and other opponents. (Tragkas did not respond to a request for comment.)

Greek Hoaxes, an independent website, quickly debunked this, and accounted for the Greek PM’s whereabouts during those days. A popular, pseudonymous, conservative account on Twitter then claimed that the incident had happened during a previous crisis in the Maldives, in the summer of 2017. The Greek PM’s whereabouts were once again accounted for. The story finally morphed into a question, insistently repeated by the media: “Why doesn’t the prime minister refute the claim?” In his speech Georgiadis said he did not know “whether it was true or not,” and called on the prime minister to deny it.

During the speech, Georgiadis was cheered on by party members and high-profile journalists. Two of the journalists, Aris Portosalte and Constantinos Bogdanos, are known for their militant support of New Democracy. At the event, they were treated to an ovation by the audience as they entered the stadium. Bogdanos answered with a raised fist to Georgiadis’ acclaim for “giving his battles everyday.” Georgiadis did not fail to share photos of the journalists waving back at the crowd, on Twitter the following day.

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The media in Greece has always been partisan, and many journalists are vocal about their political preferences. Quite a few have made the leap from reporting the news to being the news over the years—recruited by political parties as press officers MPs or even ministers. The party currently in power, SYRIZA, has recruited more than a few.

But a fusion between the conservative political mainstream, the journalists attached to it and the fringe world of fake news, “alternate” histories, pseudo-science, and conspiracy theories has given rise to a new closer network. Trust in the Greek media is at 26 percent.

With four upcoming elections in 2019, 15 journalists from mainstream news outlets have been discussed or confirmed as potential candidates for New Democracy, in addition to another 13 who are already serving as elected or party officials. Increasingly, legitimate criticism against SYRIZA government policies is eclipsed by outlandish claims and blatantly fake information, disseminated by high-profile journalists who have no qualms about being aggressively partisan.

Portosalte, one of the journalists at Georgiadis’ pie cutting, does not flinch from voicing his outright support for New Democracy. He often refers to the party with the pronoun “we.” In 2015, in the first months of the SYRIZA government, Portosalte greeted his radio show’s listeners with, “Good morning, North Korea!” He accused then Minister of Finance Yanis Varoufakis of snubbing dinners with his European counterparts now that he dines with George Soros. He likens Tsipras’s policies to those of Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela. Portosalte tells CJR that he is always mindful of journalistic ethics, by “separating news from comment,” but that his is a “personal radio show,” where he does not hide his personal opinions.

He is not alone. Yiannis Loverdos, a television journalist with a significant social media presence, which he uses to  distribute misinformation. Loverdos officially announced his candidacy in February, and has kept his daily TV show, commenting on current affairs and the upcoming elections. Antonis Panoutsos, a sports journalist turned political commentator, stopped his daily political column but kept his two daily shows on different stations. And Yiorgos Aftias, the host of the most popular weekend TV show in Greece, flirted with running as a candidate for New Democracy, according to reports.

But perhaps the most divisive of all candidates for New Democracy has been Bogdanos. A former host for TV station SKAI, Bogdanos was ousted when he went too far even for the station’s fierce anti-government rhetoric, by claiming that terrorists were “former comrades” of Tsipras. He was hired by Thema, the radio arm of the country’s biggest selling tabloid newspaper, and was soon promoted to program director. Bogdanos’s candidacy, though unofficial, was announced in January, but then had to be revoked when he promised a Twitter user, bearing Golden Dawn’s swastika-like insignia as a profile picture, that if New Democracy came to power, tanks would be sent to invade ERT, Greece’s public broadcaster—a direct reference to the murderous suppression of the 1973 student uprising by the military junta that governed Greece at the time. We reached out to Bogdanos for comment, and he said that he will keep on fighting the good fight, so his country doesn’t become “like Venezuela.”

Meanwhile, fake news has proliferated beyond the network. In November 2018, the Greek paper Ta Nea ran an obviously altered image of Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama supposedly using cocaine. It ran next to a very aggressive—and unsigned—profile.

Fake news has been normalized, through a merger of the mainstream media and political parties. And this newly networked misinformation apparatus serves a far-right agenda. It seems to have been lifted directly from the playbook of the American alt-right. With four elections looming ahead, the consequences could be devastating.

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The Manifold , a team of investigative journalists based in Athens, London and Nicosia, are Mariniki Alevizopoulou, Yiannis Baboulias, Yannis-Orestis Papadimitriou, Achilleas Zavallis and Augustine Zenakos.