Experienced war reporters and journalist unions say a number of Greek media have been cavalier in their haste to cover the conflict, which began on February 24. Accounts have emerged of Greek journalists covering hostilities without any previous experience or training, little or no safety equipment or a security assessment.
“The question is simple – if something bad happens, who will take responsibility?” asked George Moutafis, an experienced Greek freelance photojournalist whose contract to cover Ukraine for German BILD provides him with special hazard insurance, use of an armoured car and funds for fixers, accommodation, food etc.
In early March, some 10 days into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Journalists’ Union of Athens Daily Newspapers, ESIEA, issued a press release criticising the failure to provide protective equipment to a number of Greek journalists covering the conflict. It said some also had trouble covering their expenses.
Greece’s Ministry of Civil Protection subsequently provided some protective gear, but many journalists were still left searching for flak jackets and helmets when already in Ukraine, the Journalists’ Union of Macedonia and Thrace Daily Newspapers, ESIEMTH, told BIRN.
“There is no protocol that should be followed by the Greek media in circumstances of war,” said ESIEMTH.
“It is so unacceptable nowadays to send reporters to conflict zones without protective equipment and without having taken safety training courses,” said Maria Karchilaki, a well-known Greek former war correspondent who spent 20 years reporting for Mega TV.
“Covering conflicts on your own resources costs a lot,” Karchilaki told BIRN, adding that she never experienced such problems during her own career.
“If a medium does not want to spend or can’t afford to do so it should rely on the news agencies. It can’t hide behind a reporter’s willingness to be at the forefront of history and send him with very little money. It’s sad, irresponsible, and dangerous.”
The experiences of Greek journalists working in Ukraine differ widely.
With experience reporting from Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina, Christos Nikolaidis was an obvious choice for Greek OPEN TV when it came to covering Ukraine. His employer provided him with protective equipment and hardship pay, but others were not so lucky, Nikolaidis told BIRN.
“I have seen Greek and foreign colleagues in Ukraine without any equipment, which is unacceptable,” he said, and called for unions to seek a new collective agreement with employers. “It’s a matter of how employers perceive the work you do”.
Likewise, SKAI TV journalist Stavros Ioannidis, who also previously covered conflict, sat down with his editors and managers to plan his assignment in Ukraine.
“To organise a war-dispatch requires knowledge,” he said. Referring to those who went without readying the basics, Ioannidis told BIRN: “I wouldn’t leave like that. I wouldn’t go.”
“This war is a good opportunity to mobilise everyone, the media, the unions and the journalists themselves to find a solution and send trained people into war zones.”
Vasilis, who like Andreas declined to be identified by his real name, was scathing of his own media outlet’s approach to covering the conflict: “No serious evaluation was done of the people who were selected to go to Ukraine; whether they know the history of the area, the language, the political scene etc. The media sent them – at least in the first phase of the war – without guaranteeing the basics.”
BIRN approached a number of Greek media for comment but only Star TV replied.
Elias Papanikolaou, the editorial director of Star’s news desk, said security was paramount and that the company made sure to support such assignments.
“Our primary concern was that our people should not be in danger,” Papanikolaou told BIRN. “Thus, our requirements for reporting had as their only criterion their security.”
“As for the criteria, we started from the basics, to want to go to the war,” he said. The ability and intelligence to carry out the assignment safely came first, he added. “The resume on paper comes second.”
Another journalist who covered the war and spoke on condition of anonymity said he had no idea he would need a local fixer. “In theory my directors should have known it in advance,” he said. “The people who run Greek media have little knowledge of how to prepare a mission.”
Kostas Pliakos, who worked in Nagorno-Karabakh and Libya and is a supervising producer at VICE Greece, said his previous employers also fell short when it came to supporting him in the field.
“Everyone did the best they could based on their experience and their access to information,” he said. “It is the job of the media to complement the work of correspondents and few do it,” he added, referring to the role of the desk in providing additional reporting, background and interpretation.
Karchilaki agreed: “Once a war correspondent is sent to a conflict zone, the medium must support him and be there for him 24/7. It’s unthinkable not to do so.”
Editors should be assigned to those in the field, providing editorial support as well as sounding the alarm if correspondents go missing or appear to be under too much stress, she said.
In 2008, before Greece’s withering financial crisis, ESIEA drew up a collective work agreement that called for journalists covering war or natural disasters to be paid an extra 250 euros per day.
The agreement is no longer in force, but some journalists BIRN spoke to said they believed the work should be paid extra. This is not the case with many media, whether in Greece or elsewhere.
“I made a mistake and didn’t ask about the money,” said one journalist. Another, who asked not to be identified, said Ukraine was her first war and that she had no training in first aid: “I didn’t go for the money. I don’t know if they will give us some money later. I did it because I wanted to become a war correspondent.”
Andreas also said he was unsure whether he would be paid extra. More importantly, he said, “The question is if the media and journalists have learned something from this experience. If in your next dispatch you will leave again uninsured and without equipment, it will be ridiculous.”