Greece: A Grave Situation With Very Real Consequences

(Photo: Hindrik Sijens; Edited: LW/TO)(Photo: Hindrik Sijens; Edited: LW/TO)

This is the eighth and final article in a series that chronicles 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 it has a deeply-rooted history.

A fair amount of attention has been paid in the past two years to the decline in press freedom and freedom of speech in crisis-hit Greece. And while there are many real, tangible examples which illustrate this disturbing decline, what should be evident from the preceding sections of this piece is that the decline is merely a continuation of a decades-old situation in Greece, where governments enforced or ignored laws at will, while a small group of media owners and publishers with major interests across several sectors of the economy, have been essentially allowed to operate above the law and to use their power to influence both public opinion and government officials.

The consequences of this ongoing situation are many, and they are quite dire. It is a situation where the victims, ultimately, are ordinary Greek citizens, who for decades have had access to a media system which was pluralistic in name only, but within which the range of opinions and viewpoints was, for the most part, tremendously limited and restricted. It is a broadcast marketplace that is closed off to new players, as no licensing bids have been completed in over a decade, forcing potential new entrants to purchase an existing station, thereby creating a tremendous barrier to entry into the marketplace. It is a broadcast marketplace where smaller players have been systematically shut out, as was the case with the forced closure of 66 radio stations in Athens in 2001, or the 2007 law which permitted ownership of multiple television and radio outlets. It is a marketplace in which there is no legal provision for non-profit or low-power broadcasters, as is the case in many other countries in Europe, North America and elsewhere.

Indeed, higher concentration of ownership has not only limited the range of opinions and viewpoints heard in the media, but has also had a negative economic impact on numerous outlets which were previously healthy. Increased concentration has been harmful for media employees as well. As media outlets have merged or been bought out by larger companies, jobs have been eliminated, and when certain companies overextended themselves and found themselves in dire straits, unable to service their debts, the media outlets which they had amassed debt in order to acquire shut down, while their employees found themselves out of work.

Those employees who still have jobs in the media industry are themselves facing worsening working conditions. Self-censorship amongst journalists is prevalent, as it is an “open secret” in many media workplaces that certain topics and stories are “off-limits” in the eyes of the ownership and management of those outlets. Journalists who have defied these unwritten limits have often found themselves fired or demoted. This is as true in state- and municipally-owned media outlets as it is in privately-owned outlets. Employees in media outlets have been forced, in many cases, to accept lower salaries, fewer benefits, and far less job security in recent years, despite promises that concentration would lead to growth and the creation of new jobs. Journalists have also been subjected to increased violence and intimidation while on duty, further fostering a climate of fear and a possible reluctance to provide coverage of potentially sensitive issues.

The brazen negligence of successive governments has ensured that the airwaves remain in the hands of the few, the wealthy, and the well-connected.

At a time of crisis, when the Greek populace is in need of accurate, credible, and objective coverage of the political, economic, and social situation in their own country and abroad, the trend in recent years has been towards the narrowing of the range of opinions and viewpoints heard in the conventional media. The television marketplace has become a near-monopoly led by DIGEA, the consortium jointly owned by Greece’s six largest private television broadcasters. Radio, at least in the largest cities, has followed a similar path, while newspapers and magazines have traditionally also been the realm of major business, banking, and shipping interests as the high amount of capital needed to issue a print publication has ensured that smaller or independent players have not been able to make inroads in this market. The brazen negligence of successive governments to conduct a transparent, fair, and open licensing tender for radio and television broadcast stations and to allow non-profit and low-power stations to legally operate has ensured that the airwaves remain in the hands of the few, the wealthy, and the well-connected. This situation allows the government of the day to exert pressure on broadcasters to not stray too far out of line, under the threat of having their broadcast privileges revoked. This fluid situation, however, also works, in many ways, to the advantage of the major media moguls, who have transformed the radio and television landscape into a Darwinian marketplace where only the strong (and well-connected) survive. These media outlets use their extremely strong position within the marketplace and Greek society to provide coverage that is openly and flagrantly favorable towards the government and the political parties which are a part of the current governing coalition, and which have been in power for the past 40 years. Opposing viewpoints have been limited, downplayed, and often discredited, while the remainder of their programming consists of offerings that are often considered to be extremely low-brow and in poor taste, promoting a “dumbing down” of the audience. At the same time, these media outlets are used by the business elite of the country to promote their other ventures, including construction companies which receive major government contracts for public works projects. They also serve as a mouthpiece for their owners, to promote their political agenda and to pressure the government and the political parties.

Many of Greece’s main internet portals are owned by the same individuals who operate the television and radio stations and main publications.

For many in Greece, the Internet has become the sole source of news and information, and in many cases, even entertainment, serving as an alternative to the country’s highly-concentrated conventional media outlets. But even online, many of Greece’s main internet portals are owned by the same individuals who operate the television and radio stations and main publications, while independent journalists and bloggers have repeatedly faced legal troubles. Furthermore, according to Eurostat data from the end of 2013, Greece remains in 26th place out of the 28 EU member-states in terms of internet access, with 36 percent of Greek citizens not possessing access to the internet.

For many Greeks, a source of news, information, and culture which was considered at least somewhat more credible than the privately-owned, mainstream media outlets was ERT. ERT certainly was not without its (many) critics. It was often viewed as toeing the government line politically while distancing itself from a number of matters important to many citizens. It was seen as lacking editorial and operational independence, subject to government interference in everything from news reporting to hiring. These criticisms were not without merit – indeed, they were sometimes quite valid. However, it is important to state that the source of these problems invariably was the interference of successive governments and the major political parties in ERT’s operations. ERT’s news coverage, while clearly tainted by censorship and self-censorship, did occasionally feature coverage of issues that were ignored by other, privately-owned outlets. Indeed, it could be said that ERT, in comparison with the privately-owned media, was relatively more free and objective in its journalistic work. And it was these examples of free speech and objective journalism which were the target of government censorship, as was the case with the suspension of journalists Kostas Arvanitis and Marilena Katsimi for making critical remarks on the air against the then-minister of public order, Nikos Dendias, after allegations surfaced in The Guardian that protesters who were arrested and detained by the Hellenic Police had been beaten and tortured. This same government later claimed that by shutting down ERT and launching NERIT, it was promoting independence, transparency, and objectivity.

ERT’s news coverage, while clearly tainted by censorship and self-censorship, did occasionally feature coverage of issues that were ignored by other, privately-owned outlets.

It was in December of 2012, however, that the current government pressured ERT to cease its broadcasts of pan-European news channel Euronews, to which ERT was a founding member and for which broadcasts had just been launched in the Greek language. The official reason given for the shutdown was that the agreement between ERT and Euronews was “illegal” (without any specifics given) and that the rebroadcast of Euronews would lead to “grave consequences” for ERT. Unofficially though, it is known that the shutdown actually came following pressure from the country’s major private broadcasters, and from elements within the government itself, who were not comfortable with the operation of a news outlet broadcasting in Greek, but which was not based in Greece and which therefore was likely to be outside the political and economic sphere of influence of Greece’s politicians and media moguls.

Despite this interference, ERT was valued by many in Greece for its broadcasts of documentaries and films which would never be shown by commercial broadcasters, and its (limited) funding to Greece’s small film industry. Cultural and sporting events of limited commercial appeal were also broadcast, and ERT served as a sponsor for a number of concerts, theatrical performances, museum exhibits, and other cultural events throughout the country. ERT also operated an extensive web TV service, where its broadcasts could be viewed live and on-demand. On the radio side, ERT operated the country’s only radio station dedicated to classical music and the arts, the only radio station which played global and world music, the country’s first-ever sports radio station, and aired the country’s longest-running radio program, hosted by Giannis Petridis for 38 years. It also operated the country’s only multilingual radio station, as well as 19 regional radio stations which provided local coverage to far-flung regions of the country. Beyond broadcasting, ERT was home to two musical ensembles (performing classical and modern music) and a choir. As Greece does not have a national philharmonic, ERT’s philharmonic was the closest replacement, performing just in 2012 75 concerts, as well as 46 educational programs for children, including 20 free concerts. Finally, ERT also maintained Greece’s only freely-accessible audiovisual archive, a treasure trove of old programming, newscasts, films, documentaries, sporting events, and other radio and television productions from 1938 until today, all of which had been digitized. These ERT archives, after a long period of absence following ERT’s shutdown, have since been rechristened as Greece’s “public television” archives.

The mission of a public broadcaster is to serve the public, to promote culture, to give a voice to the voiceless in society.

In his speech announcing the shutdown of ERT, then-government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou referred to ERT’s poor ratings: an 11-12 percent national television audience share, when major private networks such as Mega Channel and Antenna (ANT1) are typically each in the 18-20 percent range. Not mentioned by Kedikoglou, however, was that the mission of a public broadcaster is not to attract the largest possible audience for advertisers. Its mission is to serve the public, to promote culture, to give a voice to the voiceless in society. Documentaries about Greek culture, independent films, travel programs, programs targeting the large Greek diaspora, and classical music may not be commercially viable programming, but it is programming that is invaluable and which will not be provided by commercial broadcasters. Notably, NERIT’s television ratings have, with the exception of its coverage of major sporting events such as the World Cup, consistently hovered in the single digits since its launch.

ERT’s shutdown has also posed difficulties for citizens of rural and far-flung regions, as well as for the substantial Greek diaspora abroad. In many rural parts of Greece, where there is no commercial interest for private stations to retransmit their signal, ERT’s television and radio stations were, quite often, the only Greek voice on the airwaves. This problem is particularly pronounced in Greece’s border regions, and particularly in the Aegean islands off of the Turkish coast, where dozens of Turkish radio and television broadcasters, transmitting at very high power, absolutely dominate the airwaves. The disappearance of ERT means that certain regions can now receive Turkish stations only, often with a crystal-clear signal. In quite a few cases, NERIT’s television or radio broadcasts are not available in these same regions. In the meantime, the Greek diaspora has been cut off as well, as NERIT, so far at least, has not established a replacement for ERT World, ERT’s international satellite television network, which was particularly popular with Greeks of the diaspora and which also offered English-language programming for foreigners and non-Greek speaking members of the global Greek community. Similarly, Greece’s international radio service, The Voice of Greece, has thus far not been continued by NERIT, eliminating yet another vital and historic lifeline to the worldwide Greek community.

Greece remains with a national “public” broadcaster which offers far fewer radio and television services than its predecessor.

After a year of operation by DT and later NERIT, Greece remains with a national “public” broadcaster which offers far fewer radio and television services than its predecessor, a bare-bones online presence, and news coverage that, far from being independent or objective, can be seen as being at least as brazenly pro-government as the major private networks. This is perhaps best illustrated by a headline which appeared on NERIT’s main newscast on 12 June and which quickly vent viral on social media, which stated that cleaning women who were protesting against the elimination of their jobs “attacked” riot police during a rally in Athens. This headline contradicted video evidence of the protest, which showed riot police firing tear gas against the protesting women. Indeed, NERIT has frequently been criticized for giving excessive airtime to government officials and viewpoints, at the expense of opposing voices.

Far from preserving objectivity, transparency and eliminating “waste,” the Greek government seems to have created a public broadcaster in name only, which not only continues corrupt practices of the past, but provides favorable coverage of all of its actions and which does not pose a threat or serve as a credible alternative to the country’s established private media outlets. In turn, the country’s business elite, and companies such as DIGEA, have been the main beneficiaries of the shutdown of ERT and the legal and regulatory climate which has existed in Greece for at least the past four decades, which has permitted these actors to consolidate their power and influence over Greek society, public opinion, successive governments and public officials.

While the past few years have seen a robust increase in the number of alternative media outlets which are operating, particularly on the internet, their impact has been tempered by a number of limiting factors. These include the often meager financial means of these outlets, their relative lack of reach and the comparatively low internet penetration levels in Greece compared to other industrialized countries, the large number of blogs and alternative online media outlets which spreads thin their available audience, the threat of legal action or pressure from entrenched political and economic interests, and finally, the lack of independence and the political – and often economic – affiliations of these outlets. Indeed, this very article, despite the fact that it was originally commissioned for a prominent and purportedly left-leaning Greek online media outlet, ended up not being published by the outlet, either in English or in its Greek-language translation, with no explanation given.

The impunity with which successive Greek governments and Greece’s media moguls operate makes the Greek case stand out in a world where media concentration and deregulation are a fact of life in many countries.

In many ways, the situation in Greece is not unique. Concentration of ownership, domination by a few major companies and wealthy individuals, censorship and suppression of politically inexpedient issues and deregulation are true of the media landscape in many countries worldwide, including the United States and Europe. What distinguishes Greece, however, is the alarmingly sharp decline in press and media freedoms which have taken place over the span of just a few years, as measured by international watchdog groups such as Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders, as well as the extreme brazenness with which the Greek government and Greece’s media moguls operate, freely flouting existing laws and regulations, including decisions of Greece’s high court and even fines and prison sentences, without any punishment or repercussions. Furthermore, the sudden and undemocratic shutdown of a national public broadcaster, without any democratic debate and without the decision having been ratified legislatively, is unique among Western countries. In Greece, the regulatory body for broadcasting is operating illegally; all of the country’s radio and television stations are operating without a valid license; the national public broadcaster was unconstitutionally shut down; a digital television monopoly was granted to a single corporation, owned jointly by the country’s six largest privately-owned television stations; almost all major media and publishing groups owe tens to hundreds of millions of Euros in unpaid taxes and social insurance contributions; and media moguls have been sentenced to prison terms but have not had these sentences enforced, while independent radio and television stations, bloggers, and journalists have increasingly come under attack – sometimes violent – simply for doing their jobs.The impunity with which successive Greek governments and Greece’s media moguls operate makes the Greek case stand out in a world where media concentration and deregulation are a fact of life in many countries. It should finally be noted that these governments, including the current regime, enjoy the full support and backing of European Union officials.

The situation that has been described in each of the preceding sections of this piece should be of grave concern to European officials, to Greek citizens, and to anyone who values democracy, freedom of speech, and a free and unbiased press. This is a situation that more closely resembles a cartel or a closed oligarchy, rather than an open, democratic, and robust media landscape befitting a European Union member-state. It is indeed reasonable to ponder how much of the current crisis could have potentially been averted had the public had access to a more open, fair and independent media all these years. At a time where Greece faces a deepening economic, political, and social crisis and when many of its citizens still do not possess internet access, its media landscape has shown that it is unable to accurately and objectively inform citizens about what is happening inside their own country, with dismal consequences for democracy and freedom.