Don’t Shoot Hermes: A Conversation with a Greek Journalist

“Violence is not something that concerns only journalists; it exists on a more general level.”

In part one of this series focusing on the state of media freedom in Greece, I speak with Mathaios Papoikonomou-Sideris,  an international news editor at newsbeast.gr, a Greek news web site. I met Mathaios in France through a mutual friend, where we bonded over a shared interest in journalism.  After news spread globally of the attacks on journalists’ homes in Athens earlier this month, I reached out to him seeking a clearer picture of what it’s like to be a member of the media in an environment of general hostility towards journalists.

Here’s what he had to say.

MPS: So, I can speak about myself, but I also have a lot of friends from university also working in the media. But, the “‘problem” is that most of the people I know, they are young journalists, and what is more, of a more progressive  way of thinking. On the other hand, most of the victims of [the recent attacks] are famous journalists, and some of them are working in TV and adopt a more conservative approach. Plus, as they are working on TV they get a lot of attention (they are, let’s say, famous).

You know, that was not the first terrorist attack against journalists. Three years ago, another journalist was shot and killed. A terrorist group claimed responsibility.

[Note: Mathaios is referring to the 2009 killing of journalist Socratis Giolias, who was gunned down outside his home in Athens. The militant leftist group “Sect of Revolutionaries” was implicated in the attack. A year before the assassination of Giolias, the group attacked a Greek television station. They have made multiple threats to journalists, stating after the attack on the television station that “Journalists, this time we came to your door, but next time you will find us in your homes.”]

PK– Interesting, so there’s a difference between the famous TV journalists and the more progressive young media? I’ve actually heard a lot about there being a few families in the media that pretty much control the TV channels…is this true?

MPS – To begin with, the problem starts with the journalism and the journalists and how the society thinks towards to them…Nowadays, in Greece, the “worst job” is being a politician. They receive a lot of anger from the people. We had a bunch of incidents of people (neither by terrorists, nor extreme organizations) against politicians. The second “worst job” is being a journalist. There is a wide-spread, let’s say, reputation, that they are “playing games” with the authorities, they are corrupt, they manipulate the people, they have connections -under the table- with the politicians and the biggest companies and their owners, promoting their interests. Some of the accusations are real, some of them maybe not. I want to focus on the fact that there’s a widespread thinking against the journalists, something that characterizes the whole society nowadays. Like, “all the politicians are corrupt, all the journalists are getting high salaries, promoting their own and their employers’ (and politicians’) interests.” In other words, it is getting chaotic…

PK –Okay. Are journalists viewed as scapegoats for the crisis?

MPS– Well, even if there is a general hostility towards journalists, there maybe is a “better” perspective of the news available through the internet. Meaning, there’s more of a tolerance towards [online media]. As for TV, it’s exactly how you put it. That is, the bigger channels belong to big businessmen.

The parking lot of Alter TV station, where gun shots were fired and a bomb was detonated in 2009. Photo: AP

PK – Who are some of these businessmen?

MPS – Two characteristic examples, a major TV station belongs to a developer – a major contractor. Another belongs to a ship owner. The community sees journalists as indirect scapegoats of the crisis. That is, with the way they functioned and continue to function, they support the interests of people who are to blame for the crisis, they are not objective, they promote interests.

PK -I understand. So do you personally fear being attacked?

MPS – On a personal level, I do not fear terrorism. That is, it does not influence what I say and what I do. But I do not do reporting in the field. I am not a journalist in the field. In addition, I do not have any famous contacts, neither does anybody know me. As for the journalists who cover current affairs, they may hear shouts and curses against them.

I imagine that the more famous journalists, those who go on TV, they endanger themselves by going outside and walking on the streets on their own. That’s why they move around with a police escort.

Of course, in doing so, the people’s hostility towards them increases, since they perceive a distance between them and the journalists. In this way, the chasm, the distance between them and the community grows.

PK – So you’re saying that when someone asks you what your job is, you don’t hesitate to say you’re a journalist?

MPS – Good question. Generally, I would say no I don’t [hesitate]. Of course, as soon as I tell someone, I immediately notice the facial expression of the person asking me change. So, I make haste to clarify that I do not work in TV, I do not make a lot of money and generally clarify who I am. Of course, if I simply say “yes, I am a journalist” without saying anything else, then I definitely would be looked at negatively.

PK – Do you know anyone who does political reporting? If you do, can you tell me how they feel about the violence against journalists…do they hesitate at all to conduct interviews and report?

MPS- So, in my work I am concerned primarily with international news, rather than domestic current events. As for the journalists who do political reporting, I do not think that they could be worse off, at least those among them who are not well-known and do not appear on TV. “Big names” in journalism become targets for terrorists and attacks. But they are in danger primarily from organized groups rather than ordinary citizens. Besides, most, if not all of them are protected by the police. If you look at the list of the journalists- victims of [the recent attacks], there were among them, for example, a presenter for a morning show on the biggest TV channel (Mega), the head of news of the Athenian News Agency, as well as another journalist who reports on the economy and his position is generally in favor of the I.M.F. and the government. The latter, it was well-known, worked simultaneously with the organization established under the instructions of the E.U. and the I.M.F. for the privatization of public fortune. 

[…]

Worse-off than the well-known journalists, in my opinion, are the journalists that do reporting in the field. For example, those who cover the events in Athens. Because even if they are not recognizable figures, when the people realize that they are journalists they may attack them. As for the famous ones, there is no way that they can commute securely without the police, and they don’t do it. Of course, they are a minority among journalists. We’re talking about 15-25 people.

If there is a more general issue and problem, I do not think it has to do as much with terrorism as it does with the common opinion prevalent in the community that accuses journalists as jointly responsible for the crisis. This is significant for the following reasons: a) it concerns and puts in danger many more journalists and b) it gives a boost to organized terrorism. That is, I believe that when many people saw what was going on, they said to themselves, “they deserved it.” This creates circumstances that provoke hostility.

In my environment, most understand the hostility towards journalists for the reasons I told you (corruption, they work for the interests of their bosses, they are biased, etc.). But you know what happens? In Greece today there exists a more general amplification of violence. In the beginning of the crisis, in 2010, it started primarily with some attacks on politicians who could not get around without police protection. It spread to journalists, and today immigrants experience it as well because of Golden Dawn, the far-right political party which breeds violence. In the talks they give, they often curse and accuse journalists.

That is, violence is not something that concerns only journalists; it exists on a more general level.

Therefore, most of the people I know are careful as to what they say and how they say it when they are out  in the crowd reporting.

PK – Very interesting. You have cleared up a lot. Thank you, and we’ll talk again soon.

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