A Prime Minister, A Scandal, and the Assassination of a Country’s Reputation

By Neofytos Aspriadis

Photo Credit: Euractiv *

Part I

Character assassination of states is defined as “the pursuit of sovereign states to destroy the reputation and image of their opponents and enemies.” This term refers to both the process and outcome of a defamation campaign undertaken against the image of an enemy state. In the international political context, this process is referred to as “Country Reputation Assassination.” States usually engage in country reputation assassination to achieve diplomatic or political objectives, such as grand strategic or geopolitical goals. Country reputation assassination campaigns may target an entire nation, its people, or its leader, who becomes the main state representative.

The wiretapping scandal that emerged in Greece in late July 2022 opens a new window into the use of character assassination techniques in political communication. Due to revelations about the National Intelligence Agency’s (EYP) wiretapping of journalists and opposition leader Nikos Androulakis, the government now faces a large crisis. The scandal has even implicated the Prime Minister, who is considered institutionally responsible for the EYP’s actions.

Over the past three years, the Prime Minister has been a frequent target of character assassination attempts. During the pandemic, articles and social media posts lampooned the Prime Minister as a “happy traveller,” comparing his official state visits to a well-known Greek travel show. Something between a political statement and a satire, this attack referenced the COVID-19 lockdown policy, when the Greek people were not allowed to travel while the Prime Minister could freely make official visits to any place in Greece. Identifying the pandemic containment measures with the Greek military dictatorship of 1965, attackers described the Prime Minister and his government as a Junta. The related images and memes shared across social media showed a trail of an organized troll factory.

Although such practices are very common in domestic political communication, the magnitude of these attacks was unique for the Greek public sphere. Also relatively uncommon was how the country defamation campaign pressured members of the government to resign. When the wiretapping scandal broke out, European and international media framed the event as “Greek Watergate.” Use of the “Watergate” frame, which was also adopted by some Greek media, initiated priming effects; by associating the EYP wiretapping scandal with the Nixon administration’s infamous break-in, its outcome was prefigured as the resignation of key government officials.

The Greek opposition also focused on a recent article published in the New York Times by Alexander Cleap, a freelance journalist based in the Balkan Region. This article, “The Rot at the Heart of Greece Is Now Clear for Everyone to See,” received much attention, likely because the Greek media framed it as part of a defamation process in prestigious international media outlets. The most interesting aspect, however, was how responsibility for the article was attributed to the Prime Minister himself. Due to his involvement in the wiretapping scandal, the main opposition leader Alexis Tsipras said, “as long as PM Mistotakis remains in power so will he defame the country internationally.”

In part two of this series, I will further explore how country reputation assassination attempts that are started by outside actors can be used in domestic character attacks.

* MEP Androulakis becomes new leader of Greek socialists

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