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Savage Deregulation: Further Censorship and Crackdowns in Greek Media

The “controlled chaos” of the late 20th Century Greek broadcast media landscape hid in plain sight extensive political manipulation of content.

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This is the second 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 Two 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 in Truthout in the coming weeks.

To a significant degree, the current media landscape in Greece was first solidified in the late 1980s and early 1990s, soon after private radio and television broadcasting was first permitted. As was explained in the previous article, the early players in both radio and television broadcasting represented, for the most part, the major business and publishing interests of the day, and their stations quickly became the largest and most influential in the country.

This deregulation did not happen in an organized manner, nor in a way that would preserve the public interest and the public’s rights to access the airwaves. Instead, television, as well as radio stations, large and small, began to crop up all over Greece, broadcasting any programming they desired, on any frequencies they wanted, for the most part without a valid broadcast license.

On New Year’s Eve 1989, Antenna (ANT1) TV was launched nationwide, operated by shipping magnate Minos Kyriakou and several newspaper and magazine publishers. The fact that ANT1 did not have a license was no obstacle for Kyriakou, nor was the lack of a license an obstacle for the owners of dozens of other television stations that sprang up in the next three years, including New Channel, owned by Fotis Manousis, the former general secretary of the development ministry under New Democracy, who had close ties with Thessaloniki’s then-mayor Sotiris Kouvelas, and Tele City, a station owned by prominent New Democracy politician Giorgos Karatzaferis.

The government’s regulatory body for broadcasting at the time, weak and ineffective, was presided over by Panagiotis Ladas, Kouvelas’ attorney. Kanali 29, and sister radio station Radio Athina, were launched in 1989 by the Kouris family, which rose to prominence with the publication of the vehemently pro-PASOK tabloid Avriani. The stations were allegedly reported at the behest of high-ranking PASOK minister Kostas Laliotis, while the opening ceremony of Radio Athina was attended by Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou himself.

The pre-election campaign period is typically a time where political (and business) favors are promised, and this “tradition” continued in September 1993. Only days before the national parliamentary elections, and in what turned out to be the waning days of New Democracy’s government, the Greek state finally issued licenses to certain television broadcasters. Initially, the broadcasters that were licensed to operate nationwide included ANT1, Mega Channel, “Nea Tileorasi” (unrelated to the previously-licensed station by the same name), Kanali 29, and Seven-X.

Interestingly, Kanali 29 had been sold at around that same period to a group of investors, who in December of that year launched Star Channel. They launched the new station, however, utilizing the license of “Nea Tileorasi.” The license for Kanali 29, whose frequencies went to Star Channel, belonged to a company named “Eleftheri Tileorasi,” owned by Kouris, which used the license to launch a new station, named Kanali 5, in early 1994. Kanali 5 began to broadcast on frequencies used by ERT to retransmit satellite television stations in Athens, creating an interference war. Rather than force Kanali 5 off the air, ERT ceased its transmissions on those frequencies.

After the September 1993 elections brought PASOK back to power, additional licenses for nationwide television broadcasts were granted to 902 TV, owned by the Communist Party of Greece (KKE), and to Skai TV, owned by publishing interests connected to the Kathimerini newspaper and to “Sky” radio, which had been launched by the now-disgraced Koskotas. Regional television licenses were issued to Athens-based Tele City and to Tiletora, both stations that featured programming of a largely political nature, with a distinct tilt toward the right.

While a casual observer might have described the broadcasting environment in Greece at the time as anarchic, “controlled chaos” may in fact be the more appropriate term. The fact that many of these stations were not operating with any sort of valid license gave the government the opportunity to use leverage, threatening television stations that strayed too far out of line with their political coverage or their programming with closure or with other actions, while promising station owners that “behaved” a license, to be granted at some undetermined point in the future.

For example, while ERT willingly gave up some of its Athens-area frequencies to Kanali 5 when the latter began to utilize them for its broadcasts, interfering with ERT’s satellite television retransmissions, ERT did not show the same flexibility in the case of Jeronimo Groovy TV. An apolitical station that broadcast music videos and was popular with the city’s youth, Jeronimo Groovy’s signal was continuously interfered with by transmissions originating from ERT. When the station was sold in 2000 to prominent and politically-connected journalist Giorgos Tragkas, who launched political television station Kanali 10 in its place, this interference suddenly ceased.

In another infamous example, Kanali 67, launched by Vasilis Leventis, the president of the minor “Centrists Union” political party, was shut down by authorities just prior to the 1993 elections. Leventis, whose outspoken broadcasts harshly condemning the political system and both major parties at the time earned him a cult following, had previously been the target of an assassination attempt one year prior. Sometime after the elections, the station reopened (again without a license). Another station, Hellas 62, which broadcast religious programming to the Pentecostal community in Athens, was shut down, purportedly for “operating without a license” and allegedly due to pressure from the influential Greek Orthodox church.

In 1995, Evangelos Venizelos, then PASOK’s press minister (and current vice president of Greece’s coalition government), drafted law 2328/1995, which provided a new framework for stations to be licensed, set license terms at four years and granted licensees the ability to transfer their licenses. However, most provisions of this law, including licensing bids, were never enforced. The law once again also featured some slick legislative sleight-of-hand: ERT was granted the exclusive right to provide subscription broadcast services to the public. Though ERT’s television and radio services were all broadcast free-to-air, this new law legalized ERT’s leasing of some of its television frequencies to a South African company, Multichoice, for the launch of two terrestrial subscription-based broadcast stations, then known as FilmNet and SuperSport. For years, these terrestrial broadcasts, which as with the now-defunct TV Plus required the leasing of a special decoder, were accompanied by an on-screen image displaying the word “CODERT,” thereby identifying the broadcasts as nominally being operated by ERT.

One provision of law 2328/1995 that was enforced was the launch of a licensing tender for radio stations in the Athens region. This tender, issued in 1996, called for 20 stations to be licensed. Notably, over 100 FM stations were on the air at this time in the city of Athens, while 86 stations submitted applications as part of the tender. Almost nothing happened until February 2001, just a month before Athens’ new international airport was scheduled to begin operations. Few people realized that the stage was being set for one of the darkest moments in Greek media history and a precursor of ERT’s sudden shutdown, which was to come 12 years later.

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