Q&A: Liana Spyropoulou, Reporting the Refugee Crisis in Greece
Liana Spyropoulou has been working as a journalist for twenty years, the last two covering the Greek refugee crisis from Athens and the various surrounding islands. Currently, she is reporting full time for the German media outlet Bild and using her mobile phone to provide a more personal view of the situation.
Storyhunter: Can you tell us a little about how you started and what led you to covering the refugee crisis?
Liana Spyropoulou: I have been a journalist since 1997. I first worked in one of the biggest newspapers in Greece. I was working there for fourteen years and then due to the crisis, the newspaper shut down. It left 800 people unemployed and unpaid. It was the usual Greek crisis drama. It happens everywhere. I worked for several TV shows, I co-presented a political talk show. After, I became chief editor at other political talk shows. And then, In December 2014, Bild contacted me (I used to be a fixer for them) and said “What is going on in Greece?” It was before the election of 2015. I told them there was a big crisis here. They said “Quit everything you are doing. Now you are working with us full time.”
S: It must have been a chaotic time in Greece that they had you drop everything to cover the crisis.
LS: As you probably know, 2015 was totally crazy for everyone in Greece. I was working 24/7 then when the big crisis calmed down in October/November of 2015…The refugee crisis started. I traveled to all the Aegean islands, to the big camp of Idomeni that borders with Macedonia. I was on the road all the time.
S: What was the primary way you were reporting at this time?
LS: I’m mainly a traditional journalist. But because I like livestreaming, I was putting my thoughts about live reporting through Periscope and later through Facebook Live. Of course through lots of tweets. I use social media very much and Bild likes it. They promote it.
S: What kind of difficulties have you faced while reporting?
LS: It was really difficult for me since I’ve seen many drowned kids…babies in Lesbos. It was really difficult. My first experience with dead people was back in 1999 in Belgrade during the war in Yugoslavia, but it was different back then. I was younger. I didn’t have kids. Now I have a daughter. And it was different, you know? It’s different seeing someone killed by a bomb and seeing someone drowned on a beach.
S: Is there an experience that stands out to you?
LS: In Lesbos, I met the guy who was collecting the bodies of the refugees from the beaches. One night he calls me around 2AM. He told me “Liana, can you please come and bring some photographers with you to help me? A fisherman found a baby on the rocks and I can’t go there to pick up the body. It’s too dangerous. I’m too old. Bring anyone who can help.” I brought two colleagues and we went there and it was a boy around three to four years old. When you are reporting, you have to see things from the balcony, otherwise you will not report anything. That’s your defense. But then when you leave the scene and everything is over, you collapse.
S: I’m sure that had an emotional toll on you.
LS: That’s what happened to me, I collapsed. When we went there I took photos with my iPhone. I didn’t remember I did that. Basic instincts of a reporter are “I have to take the photo.” I didn’t remember it then. When we finished and my colleagues helped take the body and put it in the car. Of course, I collapsed then in the car, and then I was looking at the photos, and I said “Oh my God. I took photos.” It was strange you know? I felt guilty for doing it. The next thing I did after one hour was I tweeted “Sorry to shock your quiet night, but this is what’s going on in Lesbos right now.” (Warning: Graphic Content) I didn’t want to see the beaches and the sea for months. Next summer, it took me hours the first day on the beach to go inside the sea. I was angry with the sea. I shouldn’t be, but I was.
S: You were reporting at the Elliniko camp before it began to shut down at the end of May. Why was the camp closed?
LS: The refugees knew this would happen. They were prepared. The ones that didn’t want to go to a new camp because it is far away from Athens, two hours by train, they left before the evacuation. Where did they go? I don’t know. Some of them took their tents and went to the beach. The weather is great in Greece right now. It is thirty degrees [Celsius]. Others went to camps near Athens to try to find accommodation. And okay it wasn’t a nice thing to do in the middle of Ramadan, but it was a camp that should have shut down one year ago. It was a disgrace. We had sexual harassment of women and children. There was trafficking and drugs. It wasn’t an organized camp. It was a complete mess. It was a solution they found when the borders closed and they didn’t have organized camps for the people and they had to accommodate 3,000 people at the beginning. There was much less at the end. They should have shut down this camp, but they should have waited until Ramadan was over.
S: So why did you choose to livestream from Elliniko?
LS: It was too hide my filming easier. That is the big benefit of the phone. If you have a camera they will see you. [The police] will spot you for sure.
S: Why livestream rather than record it and edit it later?
LS: Editing a video is a totally different thing. I will do it if I have text also and I can describe things that we don’t have time to throw in a video that is one to three minutes. New technology and livestreaming are the future. If we do everything the same, people will get bored of us and I think they already are.
S: Do you have to prepare a lot before speaking with refugees?
LS: It depends, for example [previously] I had already prepared my friend about the livestream. I told him “Okay I need three people at least and you need to translate.” He found them, they wanted to talk and I told them “Okay guys, in ten minutes we’re going live.” They were excited because they needed to share their problems and their depression and everything. They have been stuck in Greece for over a year.
S: What does it take to livestream successfully?
LS: I think when you’re livestreaming, if you show people the truth and what is really going on, it will be successful. It’s a simple fact. If you don’t pretend, and if you show the truth, you are going to attract an audience. Especially because we have a lot of fake news, that is why livestreaming is a trend that goes up and up.
S: Do you ever have pushback from refugees who didn’t want to be livestreamed?
LS: Usually I have someone with me from the community. If they trust them, [the refugee] will trust me. Sometimes they don’t want to talk. They’ll leave from there. I’ve never had any bad reactions except once. There was one time refugee boats were arriving and I was trying to livestream. They were angry, but not with me, just at the situation. It was a boat with men from Morocco. One of them came towards me and was cursing, so okay, I put the phone away and I left. I didn’t discuss it with him.
S: Do these kinds of instances make you nervous to report?
LS: No, we are reporters. It’s the dangers of the profession.
S: Since you have been a journalist for a while, are there any trends you see from young journalists while reporting?
LS: I’m kind of disappointed sometimes by young reporters. They don’t face the news. They are not doing everything for a good story. I think they have to. And I mean everything. When we were in the Idomeni camp the day they were evacuating the camp, they kicked out all the media except for the national television. The camera men were filming the police and had the frame within ten meters. Nobody knew what was going on behind them. Nobody tried to go inside except my team at Bild and another colleague from German media. The previous day we slept in tents with the refugees. We used their clothes to disguise ourselves so the police would never catch us.
S: So you were definitely willing to do whatever it takes.
LS: We were the only ones livestreaming all day from a forbidden area. All the others were five kilometers away escorted by the police. They were just obeying. The job of the police is to kick us out. Our job is to stay. You have to try. You have to try many times and you may fail, but at least try harder.
By Josh Futtersak, Storyhunter Writer