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Corruption, Clientelism and Censorship in Greece’s Media Landscape

Greece’s media landscape has been marked by ever-declining freedoms of speech and the press.

This is the first in a series of articles which will chronicle the long history of corruption, lawlessness, and censorship in Greece’s media and journalism landscapes. This is a situation which 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 one follows below, while the remaining articles in this series, which will cover aspects such as broadcasting, blogging and the Internet, social media, journalism and news reporting, economic corruption, and the shutdown of national public broadcaster ERT, will be published on Truthout in the coming weeks.

It was just over one year ago when Greece was, once again, thrust into the international limelight. On June 11, 2013, the Greek government, in a sudden and surprise move, immediately shut down ERT, the country’s national public broadcaster. That evening, ERT’s frequencies throughout Greece went dark, putting an end to a national broadcasting institution that had been on the air continuously since 1938. International headlines were generated by the unprecedented closure of a national public broadcaster, and for several weeks during the summer of 2013, numerous journalists and correspondents filed reports from Athens, describing the shutdown as the latest and most egregious example of the diminishing freedom of speech and the press in crisis-stricken Greece.

These newspapers served specific political interests, often openly favoring particular political parties or figures, while also serving as a tool to promote the other business interests of their owners and to pressure the government for contracts and other favors.

What was not chronicled by most journalists, both Greek and foreign, who were covering the ERT shutdown, however, was that this move by the government was in fact not without precedent in Greece. Instead, it was the latest instance in a long history of government intervention in and censorship of the media, which spans decades and which has included several other instances where the government of the day dealt with media in a forceful and authoritarian manner.

This series will chronicle the long history of government corruption, censorship and injustice toward the press and broadcasting in Greece, the blatant manner in which the government and major media moguls flout laws pertaining to broadcasting and media at the present time, and the troubling trend away from free speech and towards censorship in recent years. Within this context, the shutdown of ERT last summer is just one component of a broader framework of corruption, interplay between major media moguls and government officials, and uneven enforcement of the law, which has been a hallmark of the Greek media system for decades.

Background: The Intertwined Relationship of Media and the State

Even before the introduction of private radio and television broadcasting in Greece in 1987, the country featured a robust selection of newspapers and periodicals. But while there was a great quantity of newspapers and magazines in circulation, few if any of these publications could be considered objective and independent. Indeed, the press was widely seen as an instrument of power, wielded by media moguls and publishers to pressure the government of the day. Few of these newspapers were ever profitable, but in most cases, profit was not the primary objective of their publishers. Instead, these newspapers served specific political interests, often openly favoring particular political parties or figures, while also serving as a tool to promote the other business interests of their owners and to pressure the government for contracts and other favors. It was often said that major business figures, in their negotiations with politicians, would threaten to “open a newspaper” if they did not receive a major contract or favor. Numerous media and journalism scholars have described the prevailing media culture in Greece as being one of clientelism and instrumentalization, with the relationship between the press and the state defined purely on the basis of maximizing political agency and economic benefits, instead of on market terms or with a view toward the public interest.

One such example is the newspaper Avriani, which shot to prominence in the late 1970s and especially in the early 1980s after the electoral victory of PASOK and Andreas Papandreou. Avriani heavily supported Papandreou and rapidly rose to the top of the nationwide circulation figures, featuring strongly partisan and often yellow journalism which became known as “Avrianism” and which did not hesitate to smear any of Papandreou’s rivals, within and outside of PASOK, as well as beloved cultural figures whose politics clashed with those of PASOK. Essentially, Avriani operated as a party organ for PASOK and particularly for Papandreou, and was apparently found in all government offices and ministries. The newspaper was founded by Giorgos Kouris, whose family was, in the coming years, to become a prominent player in Greece’s media sector and in the political arena as well. Indeed, Kouris’ brother, Makis Kouris, was elected as a member of parliament with PASOK in the late 1980s.

With the introduction of private radio broadcasting, pressure on the government to “deregulate” television began to grow.

While official censorship of the press existed at several points in Greece’s modern history, including during the years of military rule between 1967 and 1974, more subtle forms of censorship and self-censorship were always an omnipresent feature of Greece’s press. Broadcasting, too, was not immune from this framework. The state-run EIR (National Radio Foundation) closely reflected the political interests of the government of the day, and this was further reinforced during the rule of the military junta. In 1970, three years after the military junta took power in Greece, EIR was renamed EIRT, reflecting the recent addition of television broadcasts, while an armed-forces network, named YENED, was also launched. Indeed, YENED and its militaristic orientation remained on the air even after the fall of the junta in 1974, not being renamed until 1982, when the entity known as ERT was formally established.

During this period, as in many other European countries, broadcasting remained a state monopoly, with no private broadcasters permitted to operate. And regardless of the government that was in power, state broadcasting was seen as a tool of government propaganda instead of as an entity that operated independently and in the public interest. Indeed, this operating structure was officially reflected in the national constitution, which was ratified after the fall of the junta. Article 15 of the constitution placed broadcasting under the “immediate control” of the state, and it was not until a 1987 decision by Greece’s Council of State, the country’s highest administrative court, that this clause was construed as permitting private broadcasting under “state supervision.”

It was in 1987 that the state’s broadcasting monopoly was broken. Unsurprisingly, however, this occurred not as a means to promote plurality or even market deregulation, but instead for political ends. The first “private” broadcasters in Greece were municipal radio stations which were established in several major cities in Greece, with the first such station being founded in the city of Halkida (Radio Halkida), and with stations in Athens (Athena 9,84), Thessaloniki (FM 100), Piraeus (Kanali 1) and elsewhere following later that year. The mayors of these cities had all been candidates who were elected with the support of the New Democracy political party in that year’s municipal elections, and the stations were launched to serve as a political counterweight to ERT and to the national government, where PASOK was still in power. Even prior to this, the numerous pirate radio stations which had sprung up throughout the 1980s, including highly political stations such as Kanali 15 and Tyflopontikas sta FM, often represented specific political interests, and many of these stations were violently taken off the air by the Greek police and the Ministry of Communications, with the authorities’ raids sometimes being broadcast live on the air.

Following the Council of State’s decision in 1987, the Greek parliament passed law 1730/1987, which was followed by presidential decree 25/1988, which jointly established the right for private radio stations to be licensed on a local level. A small number of licenses were initially issued, but it soon became apparent that there was no framework in which the law could effectively be enforced and license applications processed. Throughout the late 1980s and into the early 1990s, private radio stations began to proliferate, often operating without any license, or with “licenses” issued by local authorities. Almost overnight, a state monopoly turned into an almost entirely unregulated free-for-all, with hundreds of stations being established throughout the country and several dozen going on the air in Athens alone. While many of these stations were established by radio enthusiasts, small entrepreneurs and former “pirates,” many others were established by pre-eminent business and publishing interests. Figures such as ship owner MinosKyriakou (Antenna FM), Christos Lambrakis (Top FM), and Giorgos Koskotas (Sky) quickly established themselves as market leaders in the rapidly developing radio landscape. Indeed, the Greek radio dial at this time was described as a “Hertzian jungle,” where “only the strong survived.” Notably, an early law, which reserved a small portion of the FM dial (100.7-101.4 MHz) for non-commercial and community broadcasters, was never enforced.

Tailored or “photographic” legislation would become a commonly used means for the government to regulate broadcasting in a manner that was favorable toward certain specific political or business interests.

With the introduction of private radio broadcasting, pressure on the government to “deregulate” television began to grow. Initially, both the PASOK government and ERT were resistant to this change, but they began to relent in 1988, when ERT began to retransmit several international satellite television stations on the terrestrial UHF dial in Athens. These stations included CNN International, the German SAT1, Horizon from the Soviet Union, RAIDUE from Italy, TV5 from France, and Super Channel from Britain. These broadcasts were launched in order to curb the demand for domestic, private television broadcasting, but the opposite instead occurred: The public’s appetite for more televised choices grew further. In the city of Thessaloniki, the newly elected mayor launched TV100, the counterpart to the municipal radio station FM 100, while also rebroadcasting several satellite television stations. In Piraeus, the local municipality launched TV Plus, which introduced pay television to Greece for the first time, broadcasting several prime-time hours of blockbuster movies with an encoded signal, which could be viewed with a monthly subscription for the renting of a descrambler.

Both of these initiatives faced numerous hurdles and attempts at censorship. Reflecting the heavy-handed manner in which the government dealt with “pirate” stations earlier in the 1980s and foreshadowing several future instances, including the shutdown of ERT in 2013, the government sent riot police to forcibly take the municipality’s transmission facilities off the air in Thessaloniki, and similarly in Athens, radio station employees and municipal workers, including drivers of sanitation vehicles, were mobilized to blockade the road leading to Athena 9,84’s antenna, to prevent the station’s shutdown by the riot police. Likewise, TV Plus’ broadcasts were frequently the target of intentional interference by ERT, who would launch retransmissions of satellite television programs on the frequencies used by TV Plus, forcing the latter to constantly relocate across the dial. Notably, though, the state’s television monopoly had already, in effect, been broken earlier in the 1980s via rather ingenious means and again with an eye toward politics. Politician Giorgos Karatzaferis, then a prominent member of New Democracy, began to issue weekly videotapes on a subscription basis, with recordings of his political chat program, offering a political point of view that was not then heard on PASOK-controlled ERT.

In 1989, with growing political instability and a fragile (and unusual) governing coalition between the right-wing New Democracy and the left-wing Synaspismos political parties, a new law was passed, finally formally opening the door to private television broadcasting. Notably, law 1866/89, which deregulated the television industry, offered this bit of tailored legislation: provisions stating that the criteria for the issuance of a license would include the applicant’s prior experience and involvement in the mass media, or the applicant’s operations at a local municipality. These clauses effectively ensured that the original licensees would be entities connecting to the country’s major publishing interests and to local governments. As the coming years would prove, tailored or “photographic” legislation would become a commonly used means for the government to regulate broadcasting in a manner that was favorable toward certain specific political or business interests.

Ultimately, the government of that time decided to issue two licenses for national television broadcasters, but in what was now a recurring theme, the licenses were granted on political grounds: one license was granted to a consortium of prominent “center-left”publishers and business figures favorable towards PASOK at the time, including Lambrakis, Vardis Vardinogiannis, Ioannis Bobolas, Christos Tegopoulos and Aristidis Alafouzos. This station launched as “Mega Channel” in November 1989. The other, “center-right” consortium which was licensed included business figures such as Socratis Kokkalis as well as several newspaper publishers representing the center-right, and was to launch as “Nea Tileorasi.” This station, however, never broadcast more than a test signal. The stage, however, was set for the “savage deregulation” of television and the entry of a new political powerhouse into Greek society.

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