Assassination in Athens

ISTANBUL, Turkey — Fears are growing that Greece is on a path of destabilization after an investigative journalist was gunned down Monday in the latest of a series of high profile terror strikes.

The assassination was preceded by a botched assassination attempt on Greece’s Minister for the Protection of the Citizen in June and twin bomb attacks in May against a high-security prison and inside Thessaloniki’s main judicial complex.

“If the hit was a professional attempt to silence a journalist, it is far more political because it accomplishes the aim of spreading terror within a fragile society,” said Filios Stangos, a foreign correspondent and former employee of Greek state television.

Sokratis Giolias, 37, was gunned down on his doorstep by three unknown men wearing a kind of uniform, according to the testimonies of neighbors and his pregnant wife.

Murdered Greek journalist Sokratis Giolias.
Assassinated Greek journalist Socratis Giolias
(Reuters)

It was dawn when they rang his bell, summoning him to his death using his parked car as a pretext, then emptying 13 bullets into his body. They escaped in a stolen car whose charred shell the police later discovered as the neighborhood resonated to the deafening siren of a burglary alarm activated by Giolias’ wife before going into shock.

The killing took place against a backdrop of deep economic malaise for Greece and an urban guerrilla campaign by unknown far-left wing groups that target banks and other symbols of capitalism with primitive explosive devices.

An International Monetary Fund-mandated austerity program intends to drive down Greece’s 330 billion Euro debt but critics fear that, as with Argentina, side effects will include heightened social tensions and occasional violence. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe forecasts Greek unemployment will rise to 14.3 percent next year.

“Greek police must conduct a thorough probe into our colleague’s murder and we urge them to consider his journalism as a possible motive,” said Nina Ognianova, coordinator for Europe and Central Asia for the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Giolias’ assassination is perhaps unprecedented in Greece, where there is a tradition of targeting publishers, said Brady Kiesling, a former U.S. diplomat and expert on Greece’s burgeoning terror movement.

“I can’t think of any journalists killed in Greece since (the 1948 murder of American CBS correspondent George) Polk ,” Kiesling said. “There was former journalist Pavlos Bakogiannis in 1989 and the publisher of the daily Vradyni Tzortsis Athanasiadis, which was never solved.”

At the scene of the Giolias murder, police forensics gathered 16 9mm bullet casings. They had all been fired from the same two handguns used last year in the killing of a police officer by an urban guerrilla organization called Revolutionary Sect, according to the anti-terror division handling the investigation.

Similar bullet casings also turned up in May on the grave of a 15-year-old schoolboy who was shot dead by a police officer in 2008, an incident which sparked a week of violent countrywide protests. The bullet casings were accompanied by a claim of responsibility for the bombing of a high-security Athens jail.

“They (the killers) are trying to kill whoever they can,” said investigative journalist Tassos Telloglou who has uncovered several scandals at the intersection of politics and big business. “Instead of killing big names in the world of journalism who surround themselves with 24 hour security, they went for the easy target.”

Until he started running a massively influential blog, Giolias was a low-profile track-and-field sports reporter and the invisible assistant for a prominent Greek investigative reporter with whom he publicly fell out in 2008. His populist, occasionally gutter-scraping blog, Troktiko, started receiving millions of hits daily as it acquired a reputation for publishing news and gossip that the mainstream media left untouched.

“Everyone read Troktiko, both those who loved it and those who hated it,” said a journalistic colleague who asked for anonymity. “His assassination appears suspicious and, in the journalistic community right now, most journalists are not swallowing the line that it was the Revolutionary Sect’s doing.”

Although he confessed to having no shortage of enemies, Giolias refused to hire bodyguards, his lawyer said and suggested that the hard drives the police confiscated from his home may hold clues as to who was the killer. One clue to Giolias’ assassination may lie in a sparse two-line posting  published a few days before his death on Troktiko (which means Rodent in Greek) promising pending revelations of corrupt ties between “security forces and a businessman.”

Colleagues described Golias as a deeply devout Christian who filled his offices with icons of Greek Orthodox saints and was preparing to publish a book about corrupt practices in Greece.

“I just believe that behind this assassination are people who were impacted by what Socrates was researching and they, for sure, are not terrorists,” said a comment on a Greek blog, rejecting the official version that the assassination was a terrorist hit.

Though the truth may never be revealed, the police have said that all signs point to a contract hit and suspect that Giolias' assassins may have come from the intersection between left-wing terrorism and organized crime. Although Giolias had uncovered corruption and earned himself enemies in the past, he was also a hated figure in the anti-establishment blogosphere, where he was regularly attacked for his alleged ties to the Greek police and his conservative bent.

After a strong start in May, the center-left government’s crackdown on corruption and tax-evasion has shown signs of faltering. But after a tough six years for press freedoms under the previous center-right government, the media is now positively encouraged to reveal scandals.

“These are times when stories of corruption and economic crime are coming out in the open,” said Stangos, the foreign correspondent. “Stories that two years ago would have easily been “killed” with a couple of phone-calls are now being published and the last thing we need is the kind of self-censorship journalists could be subjected to should this assassination have been a mafia-like attempt to close mouths.”