A Dutch journalist who confronted the Greek prime minister over the push-back of migrants attempting to cross from Turkey has fled the country after being inundated with death threats.
Ingeborg Beugel, who writes for the Dutch paper De Groene Amsterdammer, accused Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis last week of lying during a press conference when he denied Greek border police had been pushing boats packed with migrants and refugees to Turkish waters – despite such incidents being well-documented by observers. Her comments prompted an angry response from Mitsotakis, who accused Beugel of insulting him and the Greek people.
A former Greek intelligence officer told VICE World News that Beugel had been intentionally targeted as part of a wider move to undermine foreign journalists working in Greece.
“Mitsotakis is not used to direct questions and reacted very authoritatively,” Beugel told the Dutch news site nu.nl. “It was like injecting poison. He thought he had managed to silence the press for the past two years.”
After the press conference, Beugel became the target of a pro-government social media campaign from Mitsotakis supporters that she said led to confrontations on the street with far-right activists and death threats by phone and email. The incidents led her to return to the Netherlands from Greece, where she has lived for nearly 40 years.
“As I was walking home from the store down a dark street, a man threw a rock at my head,” she said. “He called me a Turkish whore and Turkish spy and told me to go to [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan. The stone grazed my forehead. Then I ran home very fast. That was a shock.”
The incident came shortly after revelations in the Greek media about government intelligence services spying on the phones of NGOs, journalists and aid workers. And at the same time, determination to stem the migrant arrivals sparked a campaign by the centre-right government of aggressively targeting anyone who helps refugees attempting to cross from Turkey with charges of human trafficking.
The intelligence officer – who asked not to be identified for security reasons – said that Beugel was specifically targeted with abuse to diminish the power of the foreign press corps in Athens. He said Mitsotakis’ New Democracy party has already successfully sidelined most of the Greek media over the past two years, through ownership control of organisations, threats of lawsuits and even tax audits directed at media organisations thought to be anti-government.
“The New Democracy party greatly intimidated the local media. Now there’s few mainstream sources willing to oppose the party line on major issues,” said the intelligence officer, who resigned in 2019 over what they perceived as an increasingly authoritarian approach.
“It’s easy, when you control the courts, the tax authorities, the police and have a major unsolved murder of a journalist, to warn media organisations to stay in line,” said the former official. “What’s not so easy are the foreign reporters who don’t report to Greek bosses. We had discussions about this and it was thought that most could be ignored at the time. But Mitsotakis was clearly offended and it's obvious a decision was taken to make an example out of Beugel.”
A Greek journalist, who also asked not to be named for safety reasons, said: “New Democracy has crushed what little independent media existed in Greece by using ‘lawfare,’ the process of harassing the media organisations with legal methods, lawsuits, tax audits, ownership intimidation.
“Then we have the murder [in April] of Giorgos Karaivaz by organised crime groups that have been long rumored to be linked to members of the ruling party,” they said. “Can a direct link be proven? No but the lack of investigation or process in the case implies there’s a link and many of us believe it's being used as an example of what might happen if you resist the legal pressure.”
As the main point of arrival for hundreds of thousands of refugees, mostly from the Middle East and Afghanistan, since 2015, Greece has struggled to manage the tens of thousands who remain in a series of overcrowded camps or living on the streets unable to legally work. The result has been a policy by the Mitsotakis regime to force boats away from Greek waters while denying anything illegal.
“The refugee issue concerns Mitsotakis the most because it could lead to cuts in EU funding if it is accepted that the government is using illegal pushback methods,” said the former intelligence officer. “As a result, in 2019 we began to monitor the phones and email of activists and even journalists to determine if they were helping break Greek law.”
The officer confirmed recent reporting in the Greek media about the monitoring, which they said was part of an increasingly paranoid approach by the government to keep the number of refugee arrivals as low as possible.
“These guys [in the government] are pretty stupid and think this is some sort of [George] Soros funded plot against Greece but are too smart to talk like that in public,” said the former official. “So they’ve pursued criminal charges against the migrants and anyone helping them as aggressively as they can.”
In recent months, Greek courts have charged, and in several cases, convicted, either NGO workers or even refugees themselves with “human trafficking”, in an effort to deter anyone from posing a narrative that conflicts with the government’s own.
“Everyone is increasingly worried that [the evidence from] all these reporters and NGO-types will make the situation unbearable for the EU and they will investigate,” said the intelligence officer. “Even the slightest examination would show massive illegality by the Greek government and force the EU into sanctions that they absolutely don’t want to enforce, because the EU doesn’t want refugees any more than Greece does.”