Nowadays, Thanos Sitistas is always looking over his shoulder. He serves as senior editor in a tight-knit team of fact-checkers at Ellinika Hoaxes, a fact-checking media outlet in Greece that aims to combat disinformation through debunking fake news on a variety of topical issues, from politics and public health to migration.
A registered civil non-profit company, the organisation is a signatory to the International Fact-checking Network, which assesses organisations based on commitment to non-partisanship and fairness, as well as transparency. Ellinika Hoaxes began cooperating with Facebook last April to boost fact-checking efforts on the media giant’s Greek platform, as well as crack down on misinformation in the run up to the European Parliament elections. The website has produced some 3,000 fact-checking reports since its 2013 inception.
“No one in Greece likes fact-checking”
Yet in recent years, Ellinika Hoaxes has faced growing backlash from the government and other organisations. Its members have been hit by a barrage of lawsuits, legal notices and even threats from neo-Nazis and other extremist right-wing groups. After his 83-year-old mother began receiving phone calls threatening him, Sitistas has limited his social media presence and stopped making appearances in conferences and other events. “No one in Greece likes fact-checking,” Sitistas said, adding that the partnership with Facebook further exacerbated government backlash. “The pro-government media published stories against us calling us censors and all sorts of things. That scared us, I must admit. But we kept doing what we do.”
Greece has made significant strides when it comes to press freedom in recent years, ranking 65 out of 180 countries last year in Reporters Without Borders annual press freedom index. Despite this, journalists are still facing a plethora of challenges, with one of the most crucial being criminal defamation complaints that can result in immediate pre-trial detention under Greek Law. As such, the law is a powerful tool used by politicians and influential businesses to clamp down on press freedom. External attacks on journalists by far-right extremists also pose a significant threat. Just last year, reporters covering a protest were assaulted by far-right demonstrators.
For Sitistas and his team, these pressures take a toll both professionally and personally. Last year, an oncologist who claimed her herbal remedies could cure cancer—and encouraged patients to use them instead of conventional therapies like chemotherapy—sued Sitistas for defamation after he published articles debunking her products. In another recent case, the Greek Physicists Association levied a defamation lawsuit against Ellinika Hoaxes after the website debunked several claims made by one of its members that he had invented a generator capable of producing unlimited hydrogen fuel using water. In Greece, the prevalence of pseudo-science in the medical sphere is a critical issue that endangers the lives of many in the community, Sitistas said. Both cases are still ongoing.
To fight these lawsuits, Ellinika Hoaxes sought the help of FLSI. “(Lawsuits are) time consuming and a huge burden. It’s counterproductive to go against every single case, because we get that all the time, at least once a week,” Sitistas said, adding that he had to take a month off fact-checking to work on a 500-page defence memo for one case in December. “FLSI was very keen on helping us, and at the time…they were the only means of funding our legal defence. I can’t express how much appreciation I feel.”
“We have exposed some huge scams.”
As Greece continues to suffer from an enduring economic crisis, self-censorship is also on the rise, Sitistas said. Independent media outlets increasingly rely on state-sponsored advertisement in order to survive, which means that they are more likely to publish pro-government stories and self-censor when reporting on sensitive news stories. Moving forward, efforts to curb the spread of propaganda and disinformation will play a crucial role in the fight for media freedom and democracy, he added.
“I was looking at fake news all the time, trying to debunk them with my friends,” Sitistas said. Although fact-checking remains an uphill battle in Greece, Sitistas is proud of what him and his colleagues at Ellinika Hoaxes have achieved and pledges to continue fighting for as long as he can. “We have exposed some huge scams.”