Distortions and cover-ups in the Zak Kostopoulos case

Despite the case’s continued developments, it is worth recalling the initial media narrative about the incident. The first headline was “Man who attempted to rob jeweler in downtown Athens dead,” but this turned out to be inaccurate, false, and incomplete. Here’s how the original narrative went: the “robber” entered the store “holding a knife,” but became trapped. He then “broke the store window with a fire extinguisher” and “sustained fatal injuries from the broken glass.” “Knife in hand,” we were told, “he attempted to escape but was stopped by the police.” In a subsequent version of events, still from the same sources, the “robber” is found immobilized and given first aid, but takes a piece of glass, “resists the police” and / or “threatens the EMT” and attempts to escape but is prevented by police.
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But two videos of the incident that have since come to light refute nearly every element of that initial account. First of all, nothing has yet demonstrated that this was a case of robbery, or that any violence was threatened in conjunction with an attempted theft. The owner of the store claims that Kostopoulos was found in a certain area, but was himself not in the store at that time. And at no point in the first video does Kostopoulos ever seem to be holding a knife or in any way threatening people outside. The police let leak that a knife was found at the crime scene, but that remains to be proven.

What seems clear from the visual evidence is that Kostopoulos is, at first, holding the fire extinguisher in both hands and trying to break the door of the store where he is trapped. When he fails to do so, he releases the fire extinguisher and tries to get out through the bottom of the store window, which appears not to be broken yet. The window does seem broken at the top, but it is unclear why. The video then shows the bottom part break after being kicked by two people, who then proceed to beat Kostopoulos. The evidence initially presented by the police made no mention of the shocking beating shown in the video.

This means that even terms such as «robbery» or «attempted robber» are arbitrary, and all the more so when embellished with phrases like «threatened with a knife.” At this phase and in such a delicate case for public opinion, it is important that the media—which plays such a large role in shaping judgments—proceed with extreme caution. Nothing can be ruled out, but so far there is no proof of just what brought Kostopoulos to the shop in Omonoia. What has, however, been demonstrated, is that he was beaten, and that the two men who beat him acted with self-righteousness. It is not yet clear what the precise consequences of the beating will be.

Kostopoulos' first medical forensic examination marked the second time that the media and a number of commentators jumped to conclusions. According to many media outlets, or at least to their headlines, the medical examiners concluded that the cause of death was “unknown.” This, too, is arbitrary, as there is a significant difference between the cause being “unknown” and it being “not yet determined,” i.e., because the histological and toxicological examination results have yet to come in, as the coroners made clear.

Of course, the coverage has so far been completely distorted. Internet media outlets (Proto Thema, Eleftheros Typos) and newspaper dailies (Dimokratia) falsely claim that the forensic conclusion is that “the blows [i.e. from the beating] did not kill him.” ‘Journalists’ such as Konstantinos Bogdanos practically rushed to social media to celebrate, claiming that “the medical examiners agreed that there were no fatal injuries or deadly blows to the head.”

This is however false. As the medical examiners, and Sokratis Tsadiris in particular, have explained, they could only agree that injuries which would account for Kostopoulos’ death are not visually apparent, i.e., not evident to the naked eye. That, nevertheless, does not rule out a lethal blow, as Tsadiris later clarified. The lawyer for the Kostopoulos family, Annie Paparoussou, maintains that the exam showed evidence of “brain swelling, which still needs to be investigated and whose cause remains to be identified.”

Many are rushing to judgment and celebrations, but the truth is that here, too, nothing can be said with certainty, if accurate coverage and ethical reporting is to be prized over the cultivation of darker instincts and impulses. Moreover, it seems unlikely and even preposterous that there is no connection between the beatings sustained by Kostopoulos and his subsequent death.

Aside from the attitude adopted by certain media, the police, too, seem to have failed to do their duty, which raises serious questions. It appears that they tried to close the case as quickly as possible, ignoring the many «holes» in the narrative originally reported in the first day’s false “police report”. A cover-up seems clear from the dossier thus far.

As the family’s lawyer has charged, the file handed over to her contained no mention of the beating, and it was evident that the police investigation was characterized by sloppiness and disinterest. The police did not cordon off the store, as usually happens with crime scenes, and did not conduct an immediate investigation inside.

Because of the video evidence, the sloppiness is blatant. The line “junkie robber who injured himself” was initially sufficient to prevent formal questions from being asked. But we have to wonder what would have happened if the video evidence didn’t exist. What happens in similar cases, when there is no such material, or in other cases, such as those of police brutality?

It can sometimes seem that public debate is divided between two camps: those who support Zak and are sensitive to issues to do with protecting vulnerable groups, and those who support the store owner, are indifferent or even hostile to the concerns of the other side, and are defenders of order and safety.

But this is not a matter of antagonism between two different social groups. The original story was one about just two people: one who was beaten and died, and one who kicked him in an effort to shatter his head on the sidewalk.

Sometimes things are much more elementary. Like that it’s one thing to be confronted with someone who is threatening your life, a robber with a knife, and another when your life isn’t being threatened. For someone to lie about this kind of thing, whether in the capacity of journalist or public servant (though in this case both sources of misinformation are working with each other, since the police leaked their “crime report”), amounts to complicity.

 

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