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Twelve Years Before ERT’s Shutdown, a Dark Chapter in Greece’s Media History

Despite the significance of the government’s sudden shutdown of 66 radio stations, just about all of Greece’s major media outlets remained silent about the issue.

This is the third in a series of articles that will chronicle the long history of corruption, lawlessness, and censorship in Greece’s media and journalism landscapes. This is a situation that has worsened in recent years in the midst of the country’s severe economic crisis, but which has a deeply-rooted history in the political landscape of Greece. Part Three follows below, while the remaining articles in this series, which will cover aspects such as blogging and the internet, social media, journalism and news reporting, economic corruption, and the shutdown of national public broadcaster ERT, will be published in Truthout in the coming weeks.

The riot police blockade of the road leading up to the Mount Ymittos transmitter site in Athens, the morning after the operation to shut down the 66 radio stations. (Photo courtesy of Michael Nevradakais)The riot police blockade of the road leading up to the Mount Ymittos transmitter site in Athens, the morning after the operation to shut down the 66 radio stations. (Photo courtesy of Michael Nevradakis)It was the evening of March 27, 2001. In Spata, outside of Athens, the finishing touches were being made to the gleaming new Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport, which was to begin operations the following day. A few miles away, however, atop Mount Imittos, overlooking Athens, a dark chapter was being written in Greece’s modern history. During the late overnight hours, riot police stormed the mountaintop, which houses the transmitters of most radio and television stations broadcasting in Athens, in an unprecedented coup de force, shutting down 66 radio stations. The official rationale given was that these stations, which had not received licenses in the recently-completed licensing tender, would endanger flight safety by interfering with aviation frequencies to be used by the new airport.

The Ministry of the Press and Mass Media which had issued the licenses had delegated the task of examining the applications and implementing the point system used to rank the stations that would be licensed to the National Council for Radio-Television (ESR). The ESR is a purportedly independent authority whose nine members are appointed to four-year terms by the political parties in parliament at that given time and in proportion to the parties’ parliamentary representation. The members’ terms can be renewed only once, an important point to keep in mind later in this analysis. The original 1996 tender had called for 20 stations, but with the ESR’s ranking of the applications having been completed (and tinkered with repeatedly, with various stations having been repeatedly switched in and out of the “top 20” in unofficial lists which had previously been leaked to the press), it became obvious that the licensing would not entirely satisfy certain major media and business interests. Moreover, three stations were tied in 19th place in the final ranking (Alpha News, Skai, and Radio City, the former two owned by prominent media moguls and the latter by prominent politician Giorgos Karatzaferis), which meant that, in theory, one of the three would not be licensed.

On March 26, 2001, the ESR issued its list of 8 stations, which perhaps not so coincidentally, included seven stations that belonged to prominent media interests, and one station owned by the Church of Piraeus. The ESR also issued a second list of seven additional stations to be placed “on hold” for a potential future licensing tender or some other change in circumstances. At the same time, under similarly vague circumstances, the ESR broke the three-way tie at 19th place, and issued the final two full licenses to influential news stations Alpha News and Skai, while Radio City was not on either list. With both lists approved by Reppas and by communications minister Christos Verelis, the groundwork was laid for the violent Mount Imittos transmitter raid.

By the morning hours of March 28, two-thirds of Athens’ FM radio stations were off the air, and large chunks of the previously-crowded dial were replaced with ominous static. Included in the stations that were shut down were stations that were amongst the top stations in the audience ratings, as well as most stations that were independently owned and not part of broader media or business interests. Conversely, the 20 plus 8 stations that remained on the air were, with very few exceptions, owned by major business interests, by municipalities, or by the church. One such station, Profit FM, owned by Tragkas, had been on the air for only approximately 10 days prior to the raid. Another station, Planet, featured news programming but was on the verge of bankruptcy.

Despite the significance and magnitude of the government’s sudden shutdown of 66 radio stations, just about all of Greece’s major media outlets remained silent about the issue. Not only was the news of the shutdown completely obscured by the celebratory reports about the opening of the new airport in Athens, but the major media outlets were, for the most part, the owners of the 20 plus 8 stations that remained on the air, and they were quite content with the sudden elimination of their competitors.

In contrast to the ERT shutdown 12 years later, even the international media kept largely silent about what had transpired, with only an extremely brief blurb based on wire-service reports appearing in publications such as The New York Times. Even free speech watchdog Freedom House, in its annual “Freedom of the Press” report issued a few weeks after the mass closure, simply referred to the government’s action as a licensing tender which allowed the government to determine which “news channels” would remain on the air and which wouldn’t, while maintaining Greece’s press freedom rating at the time as “free.” One radio station which did report on the mass closure and which gave airtime to representatives of the silenced stations, Skai 100.4, was threatened by Reppas with having its newly-issued license revoked, for rebroadcasting “illegal” radio stations. The station quickly fell in line.

It should be noted here that the government’s rationale for limiting the amount of licenses to 20 and then to 28 was easily disproved. A 1991 study that had been conducted by the communications ministry found that 57 private frequencies could be licensed in Athens, while following the 2001 shutdown, the government had a slight about-face, suddenly claiming that anywhere from 35 to 39 frequencies could be safely licensed, launching a new licensing tender in late 2001. More notably, however, in several other European cities, such as Rome (91) and Istanbul (102), the number of FM radio frequencies which legally operated then (and which still operate today) is similar to the amount of stations that were on the air in Athens prior to the March 27, 2001, raid. In a stunning example of the government’s willingness to lie about its intentions, however, Verelis, in a rare televised discussion about the licensing tender, falsely claimed that cities such as New York only had 15 FM radio stations and that listeners in Athens should be grateful that they had 28 private radio stations to choose from.

The 2001-02 Athens radio licensing tender was for 15 additional licenses, and similarly to the 1996 tender, it woefully lacked in transparency. A point system was once again used by the ESR, with all of the previous criteria except for one: the amount of years the station had been on the air with the same ownership. This changed the rankings of the station dramatically, and again perhaps not coincidentally, the new list began to match the two “temporary” lists which had been previously created by the ESR. Various provisional rankings began to be leaked to the press once again, each time showing the stations in different positions than before.

In February 2002, the ESR completed the tender, and the new press minister, Christos Protopappas, signed off on the 15 new licenses, based on claims that no more than 15 additional frequencies could be licensed without endangering the safety of aviation. All but one of the 15 stations matched those that had been chosen by the ESR in its two “temporary” lists.[4] One immediate consequence of the new tender is that new frequencies were assigned to most of the stations, creating a major reshuffling of the Athenian FM dial. The one station which was not licensed was that of the Church of Piraeus, which finished in a 16th-place tie with two other stations, Radio Gold and Diva FM. Making it to 15th place at the last minute was a station by the name of Athens Business Radio, which had been shut down in 2001 and which was owned by the Kouris family. One of the licensing criteria in both tenders was the proposed programming of the station, and Athens Business Radio had proposed a station that would provide financial and business news. Once licensed, no such station ever materialized: The station instead began airing pop music and soon adopted the name “Orange 93.2.”

In another similar instance, Difono FM, a station that had been scheduled to go on the air prior to the 2001 raid, had proposed a station that would promote high standards of Greek musical culture. Once licensed, no such station ever began to broadcast. The station broadcast a pop music format anonymously as “88 FM” for months, before launching a short-lived stint as “Virgin Radio,” affiliated with multinational Virgin Media. Interestingly, one of the members of the ESR who was involved with both licensing tenders, Spyros Flogaitis, upon the completion of his term later that year, returned to his legal practice and became the legal counsel . . . for the station, which had been licensed as Difono FM.

Despite frequent raids to the Mount Imittos transmitter site and other transmitter sites in the Athens region, the EETT (Greece’s National Commission of Telecommunications and Post, which oversees the usage of the radio frequency spectrum) never once shut down the Church of Piraeus’ radio station or the secondary frequencies used by other stations.

Notably, earlier this year, Flogaitis’ name was entangled in two major scandals. In the first scandal, it had been found that successive governments in Greece had provided tens of millions of Euros’ worth of funding to nonprofit organizations, with several hundred thousands of Euros having been earmarked to an NGO operated by Flogaitis, which had allegedly not performed the initiatives for which it had been funded. In the other scandal, the Greek government was discovered to have created “tailored” legislation that was passed as a rider in an unrelated bill concerning open-air farmers’ markets, which would permit Flogaitis’ NGO to establish and operate the first legally-recognized private university in Greece.

Soon after the 2001 raid, certain “pirate” radio stations began to broadcast in Athens, several of which curiously were able to operate from the Mount Imittos transmitter park, which had supposedly been secured following the raid. Additionally, secondary frequencies which had been used by certain major radio stations even prior to 2001 to afford themselves better coverage of Athens’ hilly terrain, remained on the air following the raid. One such station, for instance, was Skai 100.4, which also operated on 100.7 FM. Indeed, with plenty of unused frequencies on the dial, several additional stations began to broadcast from secondary frequencies, making a mockery of the government’s claims that additional FM frequencies would cause dangerous interference to the airport’s aviation frequencies. Perhaps even more egregiously, the radio station of the Church of Piraeus also remained on the air following the 2002 tender, during which it had not been licensed. Despite frequent raids to the Mount Imittos transmitter site and other transmitter sites in the Athens region, the EETT (Greece’s National Commission of Telecommunications and Post, which oversees the usage of the radio frequency spectrum) never once shut down the Church of Piraeus’ radio station or the secondary frequencies used by other stations, while the “pirate” stations that were shut down would invariably reappear on the airwaves within days, if not hours. On the contrary, Radio Gold, which had been tied with the Church of Piraeus in 16th place in the 2002 ESR ranking and which resumed broadcasts in September 2002 under the rationale that it had the same right to operate as the church’s radio station, was raided and taken off the air by the EETT within four days of its return. Once again, the radio station of the Church of Piraeus, whose transmitting facilities were apparently next door to those of Radio Gold on Mount Imittos, was not touched.

Many of the stations shut out of both the 1996 and the 2001-02 tenders filed appeals with the Council of State, which in November of 2004 issued a decision canceling the 2002 licensing bid. In the council’s decision, numerous illegalities were identified, and three specific stations (Lampsi FM, En Lefko, and the aforementioned Difono FM) were specifically highlighted as stations that should not have been licensed, due to inconsistencies in their applications. The decision required the government to issue a new licensing tender immediately, but such a tender has, to this day, never been issued. Instead, the government, as is often the case, and as we will see again, resorted to more clever means: the passage of law 3310/2004, which included a rider permitting radio stations in Athens that had participated in each of the previous tenders, which remained under the same ownership, and which were on the air as of December 31, 2004 to receive a “temporary certificate of legality.”

This law accomplished several objectives: it legalized all of the radio stations that had previously been licensed in Athens, as the 2001 licenses were set to expire in 2005 while the 2002 licenses had been invalided by the Council of State. It also was meant to permit the three primary radio stations that had emerged victorious after the Council of State’s ruling (Radio Gold, Diva FM, and the Church of Piraeus) to broadcast “legally.” Notably, this meant that these stations would first have to return to the airwaves illegally to prove that they were on the air on December 31, 2004, thereby fulfilling the criteria of this new tailored legislation.

Other stations, which were not as well-connected or which were not rumored to be sold, have had their applications denied by the ESR without explanation.

The law had a possibly unintended consequence, however: Several other stations also on the air illegally on December 31, 2004, also happened to fulfill the criteria set forth. And it is here where the ESR’s favoritism towards particular radio stations and owners is once again clearly evident. Since 2005, stations that have received temporary “certificates of legality” in Athens under this law include, aside from the three aforementioned stations, Parea FM (which until recently wasowned by prominent publisher Dimitris Rizos), Radio Veronica, and Athens Shock Radio. What is noteworthy about this is these stations either already belonged to major interests (Parea FM, Church of Piraeus) or, soon after being legalized, were sold to prominent media groups. Radio Gold was sold to the Pegasus Publishing Group (part owner of Mega Channel and several major newspapers) and renamed Sentra FM, Diva FM was sold to the Kouris family and renamed Mad Radio, and Athens Shock Radio was sold to the owners of Kiss FM and later renamed Hot FM. The most egregious example is that of Radio Veronica, which was owned by a longtime and historic radio “pirate” and was on the air as of December 31, 2004.

On three separate occasions, the ESR refused to grant Radio Veronica a “certificate of legality,” but on the station’s fourth attempt, amidst rumors of an impending sale, the station was legalized by the ESR. Almost immediately it changed hands, being sold to an ownership group including, once again, the Kouris family, as well as prominent and highly-connected journalist Nikos Hatzinikolaou, who jointly launched news station Real FM on that frequency. The station is now in first place in the Athens radio audience ratings.

Other stations, which were not as well-connected or which were not rumored to be sold, have had their applications denied by the ESR without explanation. One such station is Atlantis FM, which had been exceedingly popular with the city’s youth prior to being shut down in 2001. The station soon returned with pirate broadcasts and was on the air on December 31, 2004, but despite several attempts to receive a “certificate of legality” from the ESR, its applications have been denied. In 2008, the station’s appeal was heard by the Council of State and a decision was issued in the station’s favor, with an order preventing the government, the ESR, or the EETT from shutting the station down until the completion of a new licensing bid. Though the station remains on the air under this quasi-legal status, the ESR has not budged and has refused to issue a “certificate of legality” to Atlantis FM. Similarly, Athens Shock Radio had been repeatedly denied by the ESR, before finally being granted a “certificate of legality” in 2007, just prior to its sale to Kiss FM. In late 2008, the station’s format was changed to one featuring a completely automated stream of pop and dance hits, and by the summer of 2010, the station had completed a meteoric rise to second place in the Athenian radio audience ratings. That September, however, the ESR suddenly “reconsidered” its legalization of the station, now known as Hot FM, and rescinded its “certificate of legality.” Within days, the station had been taken off the air in a raid by the EETT. Allegedly, the ESR’s about-face had to do with heavy pressure from major media groups which operated stations such as Athens Deejay (which ironically had been shut down in 2001 and relicensed in 2002) and VFM, which had a similar format to that of Hot FM and which had seen their audience shares diminish. In November 2013, following a series of efforts, Hot FM’s appeals were granted by the Council of State and the station has since resumed broadcasting.

Since the initial closure of 66 radio stations in Athens in 2001, the radio landscape in Athens has become characterized by the increasing concentration of ownership of the existing stations in fewer and fewer hands.

More recently, in 2007, the Council of State ruled in favor of the appeals of two radio stations, the evangelical Hristianismos FM, and Radio Ygeia-Oikologia, which had been shut down in 2001. In both cases, the Council of State ruled that the stations had wrongly not been licensed. No action of any kind was taken by the ESR or the Greek state, however, prompting further appeals by Hristianismos FM, whose appeal was once again upheld by the Council of State in a decision issued in late 2012, which ordered the government to immediately issue the license the station. Once again, the government resorted to a very “clever” mode of operation in order to nominally fulfill the court’s decision while keeping the station off the air: the ESR issued the station a license, but did not grant a broadcast frequency to Hristianismos FM, instead passing the ball to the communications ministry, which has since then not taken action. Both stations remain off the air.

In the meantime, since the initial closure of 66 radio stations in Athens in 2001, the radio landscape in Athens has become characterized by the increasing concentration of ownership of the existing stations in fewer and fewer hands, and almost invariably by major business and media interests. This has resulted in the homogenization of radio formats, a limiting in the amount of viewpoints heard on the air as well as numerous layoffs at these stations as ownership groups have consolidated their operations. However, all of the above represents just the tip of the iceberg, in a media landscape that is marked, from top to bottom, by corruption, lawlessness, and the interplay between major business interests and the government.

The next section will further highlight shocking regulatory deficiencies and instances of corrupt practices, haphazard lawmaking, and lax enforcement of existing legislation. In the meantime, radio stations in Athens operate under a hodge-podge of different legal frameworks, though all of the licenses issued in 2001 and 2002 have expired or have been invalidated. At present, radio stations in Athens operate under eight different frameworks, including licenses issued in 2001, licenses issued in 2002, certificates of legality that have been issued based on the stations’ operations on December 31, 2004, certificates of legality that have been issued based on the stations operations on November 1, 1999 (to be explained further in the next section), stations owned by political parties (also to be clarified in the next section), a Council of State ruling, state-owned stations, and “pirate” stations, some of which had, at one time, broadcast legally, prior to 2001. Ever since 2005, the government has included riders in legislation passed, usually every six months, extending the terms of the radio licenses that had originally been issued, a practice invalidated by the Council of State in ruling 1956/2012 but which continues with impunity to this day.

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