The truth is often one of the first causalities of war. The same applies to the recent Athens riots: not that these resembled a war (although many would argue that they did), but because truth fell victim to the dissemination of outright lies, mainly thanks to the media.
The lie is that Alexis Grigoropoulos and his friends had thrown or were about to throw a petrol bomb at the two special police offices in their car.
One might question why it is necessary to write about something that never happened.
It is important to write about it, because the idea that the youths on that fateful night were about to throw a petrol bomb at the police – thus putting their lives in grave danger – is used by many to legitimise the police killing of a 15-year-old boy.
Today, the newspaper I work, the Athens News, for received a letter on the riots that contained the following paragraph:
From the immediate press reports, before ideological blinkers took hold, it appeared that the child threatened the police officers (and others) with deadly force (the petrol bomb). As such their action in shooting him dead, whilst unfortunate, was entirely reasonable. The murder charges appear to be grossly excessive and the chance of conviction to be zero. The police officer is to be pitied as a victim here. The matter was clearly one of self-defence at least if not justifiable homicide. If I were expected to judge the officer’s actions in hindsight, I would be far more alarmed about the ‘stray bullet’ hypothesis than of any action to shoot to kill in the circumstances.
The letter-writer made otherwise very valid points. However, as I told him, I could not agree to publish the above paragraph, as it contradicts much of what has emerged about that night.
I don’t think the letter-writer meant any offence and seemed sure that he had read the firebomb claim in one of the initial BBC reports on the shooting.
The BBC report contained no such claim, but some other news sources did.
Indeed, the claim that Grigoropoulos threw or had threatened to throw a bomb at the police was contained in some, but not all, of the initial reports on the killing which appeared on Sunday, December 7
These reports were:
- AFP, December 7 (as published in The Australian).
DOZENS of rioters have rampaged through central Athens after police shot dead a teenage boy who attempted to throw a petrol bomb at a patrol car, police officials said.
The youths smashed shop windows and set fire to refuse containers after the shooting, which took place in the traditionally left-wing Exarchia district of the Greek capital.
“Hundreds of them hit the streets, probably for revenge … Dozens of police units are gathering to try to control the situation,” said a police official, who declined to be named.
Tear gas filled the narrow streets of the busy neighbourhood and restaurants closed their shutters, witnesses said.
Police said there were no arrests or reports of injuries so far.
The shooting took place after a group of around six youths started pelting a police vehicle with stones. When one tried to throw a petrol bomb, a policeman shot him in the stomach, said the official.
Given its detail, the AFP report is, I believe, the source of the claim, and although it isn’t dated precisely, I believe it appeared before 3am GMT on Sunday, December 7, when a very similar report, published by an Iranian agency, appeared:
- Press TV (Iran) report, published at 03:09:07 GMT on Sunday, December 7:
The shooting took place after a group of six youths started throwing stones at a police vehicle and when one of them tried to throw a petrol bomb, a policeman shot him, said a police official, who declined to be identified.
- Another much cited report was published by CNN on December 7:
A police statement about the boy’s death said the incident started when six young protesters pelted a police patrol car with stones. The 16-year-old boy was shot as he tried to throw a fuel-filled bomb at the officers, police said.
- A Radio France International report, dated December 7,
Police said the boy had been shot after a policeman fired into a crowd of people who had launched molotov cocktails at a police car.
- And similarly, Al Jazeera, in a report timestamped 11:22 GMT, December 7, repeated the allegation:
Police said the teenager was shot in the traditionally left-wing Exarchia district of the Greek capital on Saturday after the boy tried to throw a firebomb at a patrol car.
What is most worrying about the Al Jazeera post is that it presents the firebomb claim as fact. The AFP report, on which it is clearly based, at least attributed “police officials” as a source.
The effect that this disinformation is clearly evident in the comments on the article on the Al Jazeera. The first three readers, clearly fuelled by the bomb lie, wrote:
“He was throwing a fire bomb! He deserved to be shot” – Miguel, Mexico
“The idiot tried to throw a firebomb at a patrol car. He got what he deserved.” – JB, United States
“If you’re throwing a deadly weapon … what do you expect? I believe the officer was worried for his own safety and did what he had to do. what was a fifteen year old boy doing with a fire bomb? – Scott, Canada
- Again, in a December 8 report datestamped 02:56 GMT on December 8, Al Jazeera repeated the allegation, again as fact:
The boy had tried to throw a firebomb at a police patrol car.
- And, also on December 8, CNN repeats the allegation:
A police statement about the teenage boy’s death said the incident started when six young protesters pelted a police patrol car with stones. The teen was shot as he tried to throw a petrol bomb at the officers, police said.
What did the other agencies say?
It is important to point out that other news agencies made no reference to the petrol bombs. They had no reason to as the initial police report made no such reference to a firebomb.
- This is what AP wrote on December 7:
Several hours after the incident, police issued a statement saying the patrol car, with two officers inside, was attacked by a group of 30 stone-throwing youths while patrolling the central district of Exarchia.
According to the initial statement given by the two officers, the incident occurred shortly after 9:00 on Saturday night when a police patrol car responding to a call in the Exarhia district was surrounded by a gang of 30 youths that started throwing stones and bits of wood at them.
A falsehood spreads
It has since disappeared. However, the claim remains on other CNN reports on the shooting, including the December 8 one mentioned above.
The reference to the CNN claim in Wikipedia was first made on 11:01 (Greek time), on December 8. The source was the December 7 CNN article. The wording was:
A police statement stated that the teenager was killed while trying to throw a bomb at a police vehicle.
This statement, which was later reworded to
Police reports said the initial statement of the guard was that the shooting happened in self-defense, as the victim of the shooting was about to throw a molotov cocktail at the guards.
remained on Wikipedia until 22:06 (Greek time), December 14, when it was removed.
The claim in Greece
The claim was also published by a Greek English-language weekly newspaper, Athens Plus, which is owned by International Herald Tribune and Kathimerini:
In a letter to the editor published in the December 12 issue, Kerry Kay, from Kifissia, wrote:
… watching the media covering the killing of the 15-year-old boy, no one dared ask the question “What was a 15-year-old boy doing in the middle of the night attacking police cars with Molotov bombs?’’
Arguably, no one asked the question because a) the boy wasn’t carrying a bomb and b) the incident took place at 9pm and not in the middle of the night.
Surely, the Athens Plus should have exercised more editorial intervention in relation to this letter. It is simply irresponsible for an English-language weekly that is freely available to download and which is – judging by its readers’ letters – read by many Greeks abroad, to publish such unsubstantiated claims as fact, even in a reader’s letter.
Indeed, the letter contradicts the editorial line taken in the same issue:
The murder was not committed in the heat of battle between anarchists and riot police, where it could somehow be explained as a predictable accident. It came in the form of a police officer losing his temper and firing at a group of youngsters, who may or may not have taunted him and his partner when they drove by a bar in the anarchist stronghold of Exarchia.
Who is to blame?
It’s clear that the AFP report was based on the comments made by an unnamed police officer in the early hours of Sunday morning. AFP may have seen this information as a scoop, but surely report should have been based on official the police statement of the incident, which made no reference to petrol bombs, and not on the comments of an unnamed officer.
In any case, Epaminondas Korkoneas, the policeman who fired the fatal shots, also subscribes to the firebomb thesis. As a Reuters report, dated December 10, states:
A Greek policeman facing a murder charge for the shooting of a teenager testified to prosecutors on Wednesday that he fired warnings shots in self-defence when a gang of youths threw firebombs at him, a court source said.
The 37-year-old policeman, Epaminondas Korkoneas, said he did not realise that 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos had been hit by a ricochet bullet, the source told Reuters.
Why shouldn’t he? It seems to be his only defence, and judging by the letter mentioned at the beginning of this article and the many internet discussions taking place on the incident outside of Greece, the firebomb myth assures some that the killing was somewhat justified and the subsequent disturbances, which have very real causes, are completely illegimate.
Spreading unsubstantiated rumour so grave as this one could also have incited the violent reactions of demonstrators, particularly those abroad who were presented with the “firebomb fact” by the news agencies listed above.
News reporting should not just limit itself to reporting what actually happened, but also how what happened can be manipulated.