This is the fourth 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 Four 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.
While the press in Greece is generally free from overt regulation from the government, broadcasting in Greece is overseen by two supposedly independent bodies: the National Council for Radio-Television (ESR), which regulates issues pertaining to licensing and programming, and the National Committee of Telecommunications and Post (EETT), which manages the radio frequency spectrum. The Ministry of Press and Mass Media was abolished in 2004, and some of its duties were transferred to the Ministry of State, while the EETT is nominally overseen by the Ministry of Infrastructure, Transport and Networks.
Both laws and binding court decisions are ignored at will by the government in Greece … [if they conflict] with the interests of the major media moguls.
Both the ESR and EETT, and especially the former, are often the targets of fierce criticism, both from broadcasters and from commentators and journalists. They are frequently accused of corruption, ineffectiveness, favoritism, and of not truly operating independent of government interference, while they are often seen as hostile to broadcasters not owned by major business interests or which are not seen in lockstep with the government politically.
What must be highlighted at the outset is a particularly blatant example of how both laws and binding court decisions are ignored at will by the government in Greece, when the enforcement of these laws or decisions would conflict with entrenched political interests or objectives, or with the interests of the major media moguls. The example being referred to has to do with the terms of several members of the ESR, including its president Ioannidis Laskaridis, a former vice president of Greece’s Court of Cassation (Areios Pagos – Greece’s Supreme Court), whose original term expired on June 3, 2006. An 18-month gap followed, during which his term was not renewed, but he continued to operate as president. After the renewal, his second (and final) term expired on February 28, 2012. Since that time, he has remained in his position, as have several other members whose terms have similarly expired, including Evi Demiri and Giannis Papakostas. In decisions issued in 2011 and again in October 2013, the Council of State ruled that the continued extensions granted to the members of the ESR whose terms have expired are unconstitutional, and called into question the entirety of the ESR’s body of decisions issued during the period of time when one or more of its members’ terms were expired and invalid.
In what should be a familiar narrative by now, neither the government nor the ESR have curtailed this behavior in the slightest. All of the ESR members whose terms have expired have, as of this writing, not been replaced with new nominees by the political parties and the parliament, and the ESR itself has reacted in a breathtakingly brash, shameless manner to stations that have questioned the legality of its decisions. For instance, this past May, the ESR brazenly reinstated fines of €50.000, which had been levied against three separate television stations and which had been invalidated by the Council of State due to the expired terms of the ESR’s members.
In the meantime, the former government of George Papandreou, following the first decision of the Council of State in 2011, passed law 3979/2011, which eliminated the previous limit of eight months grace period past the expiration of the ESR members’ terms. Further adding to the ESR’s dysfunction, its website (www.esr.gr) has remained offline ever since a bomb exploded on April 10 outside the Bank of Greece, which is adjacent to the ESR’s offices. Apparently, no backup of the previous site exists, and presently, the site points to a list of ESR decisions posted on the government’s Diavgeia web portal. This portal, however, does not include other vital information previously found on the ESR’s website, including a list of legally operating radio or television stations or the ownership information of these stations. Furthermore, it has been reported that much of the ESR’s internal electronic infrastructure, including a system that monitored the content of television stations, has also remained out of commission since the blast.
It is within this context that the haphazard and exceedingly unjust broadcasting environment in Greece should be analyzed. The previous article analyzed the illegalities and inconsistencies surrounding the licensing tenders for radio stations in Athens in 1996 and 2001-02, but this one situation merely represents the tip of the iceberg in the convoluted, haphazard regulatory environment governing broadcasting in Greece.
The aforementioned law 2328/1995 was to set a framework under which both radio and television broadcast licenses would be issued. And indeed, aside from the tenders for radio broadcast licenses in Athens, tenders were also issued for national, regional and local television stations, for terrestrial analog pay television services, as well as for radio stations in the city of Thessaloniki.
With the exception of the legally troublesome tenders in Athens, none of the other licensing bids was ever completed. Instead, what has been implemented is an extremely haphazard set of regulations that has preserved the quasi-legal status under which most broadcasters in Greece have operated for most of the past three decades. For instance, applicants that participated in the licensing tenders for regional and local television stations, issued in 1998, have been “temporarily” legalized pending the completion of these tenders. Similarly, a rider included within the language of law 2778/1999 “legalizes” all radio stations on the air as of November 1, 1999 and that had applied for a license, pending the issuance and completion of licensing tenders.
As tenders were completed in Athens only, this law applies for the rest of the country except for the capital. Fifteen years after its passage, there are still a handful of stations “legalized” by the ESR each year, based on whether they can prove they were on the air on a particular date in 1999. Indeed, it was not until 2010 that the ESR formally asked stations to declare the frequency upon which they operated in 1999.
This perpetual “temporary” state has been invalidated and declared unconstitutional by the Council of State, in a ruling (3578, issued in 2010) that specifically applied to television stations, and in a follow-up ruling, 1956/2012, applying to all broadcasters. Furthermore, in decision 3839/1997 issued by the Council of State, the court ruled that the operation of a broadcast station without a license does not, on its own, constitute a criterion to issue a license to that station. This ruling would seem to invalidate the ability to legalize a station simply for operating (presumably illegally) on a particular randomly-selected date, but all of the above Council of State decisions are entirely ignored by successive governments, the ESR and the EETT. Instead, the government has doubled down, passing a rider attached to unrelated legislation concerning Greece’s health-care system in August 2013, which indefinitely “legalizes” all of Greece’s television stations that had previously been considered legal, until a final licensing tender is completed.
This decision also has major implications for the transition to digital broadcasting, which will be analyzed later in this piece. In terms of radio, the government has also continued the practice of extending expired broadcast licenses, in brazen violation of the aforementioned Council of State decisions. On August 1, the traditional start of summer holidays for many Greeks, a new law was passed through parliament that once again granted a six-month extension to expired radio station licenses.Throughout this time, the licenses and frequencies of stations that have gone bankrupt, such as Tempo TV (formerly New Channel) were never returned to the state and put up for tender, while the license of Alter Channel, which ceased operations in late 2011, has never been rescinded. Similarly, the license of an Athens radio station that went bankrupt in 2013, VFM, has not been revoked, nor has it been offered for tender or to another broadcaster for possible use.
Following the largely unenforced law 2328/1995, the New Democracy government in 2007 attempted to place its stamp on media regulation with a new law it passed that year, 3592/2007. Within this law’s numerous provisions were clauses that formally allowed one owner or company to possess more than one radio or television station (this had previously been illegal, but often flaunted). Additionally, minimum staffing and financial requirements were set forth for radio and television stations, requirements particularly prohibitive for stations operating in smaller islands and more rural areas of Greece, which could not afford to hire large staffs or meet minimum investment thresholds.
Throughout the years, the ESR has invented several different ways it has attempted to further regulate radio and television stations, their operation, and even the content of their programming.
Municipal radio stations were also required to incorporate and meet the aforementioned minimum requirements, forcing several smaller municipally-owned stations across Greece off the air, temporarily in some cases and permanently in others. It also foresaw new licensing tenders for radio and television stations, which never materialized.
In the case of radio broadcasting, the tenders were contingent on the issuance of a new nationwide frequency plan, which was publicized in 2008 and which was roundly criticized by broadcasters, both large and small, for offering favorable provisions to ERT, for offering too few frequencies in certain areas, too many in other areas and ignoring other parts of Greece, including several islands, altogether. Additionally, in what is likely a global first, in many cases the frequency plan did not foresee the licensing of frequencies above 102 MHz on the FM dial (which goes up to 108 MHz), supposedly in order to prevent “interference” to aviation frequencies, which are assigned to the part of the spectrum immediately adjacent to the FM broadcast band. This, in essence, severely and unnecessarily limited the number of available frequencies to be licensed, particularly in large cities such as Athens and Thessaloniki. This frequency plan replaced an earlier plan, issued in 1999 and only partially enforced in Athens, which would have limited the amount of radio stations in Greece by over 90 percent. Neither of these plans was ever fully implemented.
Indeed, the ESR and the EETT have been particularly harsh and inflexible with regards to the needs of radio stations in Greece’s periphery, rural areas and borderland regions.
Throughout the years, the ESR has invented several different ways in which it has attempted to further regulate radio and television stations, their operation, and even the content of their programming. With regard to frequencies, radio stations operating under the provisions of law 2778/1999 are not only required to prove that they were on the air on November 1, 1999, but they are required to broadcast on the frequency they used on that particular date. This has resulted in some of the ESR’s most absurd decisions, which have at times been disastrous for local radio stations.
In one example, Radio Trifilia, a radio station broadcasting in the Messinia region, near the city of Kalamata, was forced to relocate to its former frequency of 100.4 FM, which it had used in 1999 but which it had abandoned when that frequency was taken over by ERT for the rebroadcast of one of its national radio services for the Kalamata region. In its decision, the ESR flatly stated that the broadcast of another station on the same frequency in the same region was not a legitimate reason to switch to a different frequency. The station has since gone off the air.
In another example, a radio station in the island of Lesvos, 97.2 FM, was forced to relocate to the frequency it operated on in 1999, even though that frequency had since been overtaken by a powerful radio station broadcasting from neighboring Turkey, only a few kilometers away. This has essentially rendered the station’s signal unlistenable in its own community.
Indeed, the ESR and the EETT have been particularly harsh and inflexible with regards to the needs of radio stations in Greece’s periphery, rural areas and borderland regions. Greece’s mountainous terrain and large number of islands poses particular challenges for broadcasters, and this problem is especially acute in the border regions, as Greek broadcasters face tremendous interference from powerful stations broadcasting from neighboring countries, particularly Turkey.
In the Dodecanese islands, for instance, the large distance between the islands makes it impossible to cover the entire region from one transmitter site, and for years, local radio stations had set up networks of transmitters on smaller islands, retransmitting the main signal. These stations have been repeatedly fined by the ESR and targeted in raids by the EETT, with the result being that these secondary transmitters have been forced off the air. Now, in islands such as Karpathos or Symi, only one or two Greek radio stations can be heard, while dozens of radio stations can be received from neighboring Turkey, usually with powerful signals that can indeed be received in much of the Aegean.
Non-news stations have occasionally been fined by the ESR for broadcasting content considered to be news or of an informative nature, though this law has been selectively and haphazardly implemented, seemingly based on the ownership of the station and its political stance.
This problem became even more severe after the shutdown of ERT, as ERT’s transmitters in these rural regions went off the air and, in many cases, still have not been replaced with broadcasts of Greece’s new “public” broadcaster, NERIT. And while pressure from some radio stations in regions where additional transmission points are necessary resulted in the passage of a law in 2013 permitting the construction of new secondary transmitters that would operate within the same geographic region, the language of the law was so vaguely written that few radio stations could understand what was explicitly permitted or not permitted by the law. Fearing potential fines or shutdowns, most stations have elected to not place any secondary transmitters on the air.
Content Control through Selective Enforcement
Another way the ESR has meddled with the operations of broadcast stations has been by forcing radio and television stations to classify their programming into one of two categories: news or entertainment. Law 3592/2007 was directly implicated here, as different staffing and financial requirements were foreseen for each category, with far stricter thresholds set for news stations. Additionally, no provision was foreseen, until recently, for stations to be able to change categories, essentially locking those stations in to the choice they originally made. In an overnight law passed on August 1, a new provision permits news stations to switch categories and declare themselves a “non-news” station.
No provision, however, exists for “non-news” stations to switch categories and declare themselves “news” stations. As a result, this locks in the already-existing “news” stations as the only ones that can legally air such programming, shutting out any new players from offering informational programs on the radio.
Notably, non-news stations have occasionally been fined by the ESR for broadcasting content considered to be news or of an informative nature, though this law has been selectively and haphazardly implemented, seemingly based on the ownership of the station and its political stance. For instance, ANT1 Radio in Athens switched formats in late 2012, dropping news and information and instead adopting adult contemporary music and a new name, Easy 97.2. The station retains one “informational” program, on weekday mornings from 5-6 am, yet it has never been punished.
The ESR has also been known to target radio stations that don’t toe the government line with fines, often for offenses that go unpunished on other radio stations.
On the other hand, a radio station in the region of Serres in Greece which classified its programming category as “entertainment” was fined by the ESR in 2012, prior to that year’s parliamentary elections, for airing an interview with a local candidate. Even being classified as a “news” radio station, however, sometimes is not enough, as is evident in the recent case of radio station Candia News 93.6 FM in Iraklio, Crete. In July, the ESR ordered the station, which is classified as a “news station,” to cease all news and information broadcasts immediately, following the submission of an anonymous complaint to the ESR alleging that the station had not previously aired news programming and that it had often been critical of Iraklio’s mayor, Giannis Kourakis.
The ESR has also been known to target radio stations that don’t toe the government line with fines, often for offenses that go unpunished on other radio stations. The best example illustrating this is the case of Real FM, the most listened-to radio station in Athens. In 2013 alone, a total of €68.000 in fines was levied against the station for rather tame offenses, such as exceeding the amount of allocated time to air advertisements and for “poor usage” of the Greek language. Real FM’s satirical program, “Ellinofreneia,” has often been the target of fines levied by the ESR, whereas when the program previously aired on the more decidedly pro-government Skai 100.3, the program had not once been fined by the ESR.
Real FM, while featuring a lineup of prominent journalists such as the station’s part-owner, Nikos Hatzinikolaou, has often been more outspoken in opposition to various government policies, and it is suspected that its political stance, as well as its popularity, have made it a favored target of the ESR.
The ESR has often been known to make decisions which, due to their apparent absurdity, have often been the subject of ridicule. In one infamous decision from 2007, the ESR fined local Athens-based television station Channel 9 for its broadcasts of “Spongebob Squarepants,” with the rationale that Spongebob Squarepants was homosexual. In 2005, the ESR issued a decision ordering the immediate shutdown of popular Athenian radio station Best 92.6 due to the “repeatedly low standards of quality” of its broadcasts. The station was forced to appeal to the Council of State to overturn the decision. Best 92.6 had previously been ordered to shut down by the ESR in a decision that was actually intended for the unrelated . . . Best TV, based in Thessaloniki, a decision the ESR initially refused to correct.
Another noteworthy and likely unique feature of Greek broadcasting regulations is a provision, included in law 3592/2007, that permits radio and television stations owned by political parties represented in parliament to broadcast freely, without a license. Two stations have taken advantage of this law: Sto Kokkino 105.5 FM in Athens (and its sister stations in the cities of Thessaloniki and Kavala), owned by the Syriza political party and which had originally begun broadcasting without any sort of legal basis in late 2005. The other station is Art FM in Athens, formerly Radio City, owned by the LAOS political party. However, despite the fact that LAOS has not been represented in the Greek parliament since 2012, the station has remained on the air.
In a 2013 decision, the ESR interpreted the law as permitting such stations to operate if they were represented in either the Greek or European parliament. As LAOS was still represented in the European parliament, this decision covered the station’s operations until the May elections, when LAOS did not earn enough votes to renew its European parliamentary presence. However, not only has no action been taken against Art FM as of yet, but its co-owned television station, Art TV (formerly Tele City), which in 1993 had received a regional license, was granted the privilege of broadcasting legally on a nationwide basis, with decision 256/2014 issued by the ESR earlier this year. This decision came without a tender having been issued and without any public debate, but amid steady rumors that party leader Giorgos Karatzaferis was being courted by the governing New Democracy party.
Not only are radio and television broadcasters not operating with valid licenses, but their transmitter sites and antennas are, in almost all cases, not licensed either, . . . without . . . studies having been conducted to assess their impact on surrounding residential communities.
The EETT has often rivaled the ESR in its selective and haphazard enforcement of the law. Tasked with regulating the radio frequency spectrum, it is the body that is responsible for taking “pirate” stations and other illegal broadcasters off the air, as well as ensuring that all broadcasters maintain compliance with various technical norms and regulations. This enforcement has a tendency to vary, however, depending on the station. One notable example has to do with a mysterious signal that has been transmitting dead air on 100.6 FM in Athens for at least the past 12 years.
This frequency used to be the home of the secondary transmitter of Skai 100.3, and it is reported that the signal originates from Skai’s Mount Imittos transmission facilities. In repeated raids of the Mount Imittos transmitter park over the past several years, the EETT has never once taken this unlicensed signal off the air. Interestingly enough, just prior to many of these same raids, most if not all of the “pirate” stations that are on the air have a tendency to go off the air, almost simultaneously, only to return to the airwaves a few hours later, after EETT crews have departed, likely having been forewarned of the impending “raid.”
On various occasions, the EETT has not hesitated to act against the Greek State as well, in what can colloquially be described as the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing. In at least two instances, the EETT confiscated and took off the air transmitters broadcasting ERT’s radio services in the regions of Halkidiki and Lesvos, claiming that these transmitters were not authorized to operate. The respective regions were left without reception of ERT radio service, even though all citizens with an electric utility bill were charged for ERT’s services (and are now charged for NERIT), whether their area received the broadcasts or not, and whether they watched or listened to the broadcasts or not.
The EETT has also proven to be particularly efficient when targeting Greece’s few student-run radio stations, most of which are unlicensed. Just in the past year, such stations in Athens, Patra, Lesvos, and Xanthi have been taken off the air as part of EETT raids, often in conjunction with the police, and with at least one student having been arrested. The Athens raid, in particular, also led to the temporary shutdown of the Athens Indymedia Center, whose servers were located at the same location as student-run station 98 FM at the University of Athens. The shutdown of Athens Indymedia, in particular, was the longstanding and vocal demand of several MPs of the governing New Democracy political party, as well as prosecutors. These shutdowns are reflective of a trend dating back to at least the 1990s, when collectively-run radio station Radio Kivotos was shut down by police in Thessaloniki for “broadcasting without a license,” while in another, more recent (2010) incident in Thessaloniki, collectively-run radio station Radio Revolt was the target of an arson attack, in which firefighters allegedly refused to intervene without a police presence at the scene.
Technological innovation also has not escaped the attention of EETT. In 2004, experimental DAB (digital audio broadcasting) transmissions launched by Kiss FM in Athens were taken off the air, apparently because Greek law did not recognize radio stations who transmit digitally. In 2008, further experimental DAB broadcasts launched by the Technical Educational Institute of Piraeus were also forced to cease, this time allegedly due to complaints filed by ERT. Meanwhile, the wattage used by both television and radio stations for their broadcasts has not been regulated by the EETT in any way, which has often, especially pre-crisis, resulted in a “war” between competing stations attempting to outdo each other for the most wattage, or to purposely cause interference to neighboring stations. Despite all of the aforementioned incidents, however, and similarly to the ESR, the terms of the three members of the EETT’s spectrum oversight division had their terms renewed for an additional three years in August.
Arbitrary Enforcement Impacts Many Constituencies
Even a seemingly positive legal development has become yet another one in the myriad of problems facing the broadcasting industry. In early 2013, law 4109/2013 was passed permitting the unpaid employees of radio stations that have gone bankrupt or ceased their operations to submit an application to the ESR to take control of the station and its (expired) license. The employees of several radio stations in Athens, including Nitro Radio, Flash 96, Best 92.6 and Xenios FM, successfully were granted control of their respective stations by the ESR, following applications which they submitted, despite the somewhat prohibitive financial requirements set forth by the law. Despite receiving positive approval from the ESR, however, the decisions require final approval from the Minister of State.
After many months, these approvals still have not been granted. In the meantime, only one of these radio stations (Nitro Radio) has successfully returned to the airwaves with a full broadcast schedule, while Flash 96 has played nothing but an automated music playlist for many months. Best 92.6 and Xenios FM, on the other hand, have not resumed broadcasts of any kind.
In closing this section, it should be noted that not only are radio and television broadcasters not operating with valid licenses, but their transmitter sites and antennas are, in almost all cases, not licensed either, with transmitter sites often having been developed without any environmental impact studies having been conducted, to assess their impact on surrounding residential communities.
For instance, in 2010, the municipality of Hortiatis, outside of Thessaloniki, removed several broadcast antennas from the Hortiatis transmission facility, which serves the Thessaloniki region, following a court decision finding that the antennas had been operating illegally. Recently, the government has attempted to use this lack of enforcement to its advantage, passing (as usual, as a legislative rider) law 4249/2014, which gave radio stations approximately six weeks (during the pre-Easter period) to procure and submit, to the EETT, a long series of documents, including various environmental studies, to license their antennas and transmitting towers.
After word about the impending legislation, which was passed, leaked to the public, an outcry from the owners of smaller radio and television stations followed, especially as it was pointed out that transmission facilities could not be licensed if the stations operating them were not licensed first, while stations could not be expected to undertake such an expense without knowing if they will ultimately receive a broadcast license. Despite government promises of a revision of the law, however, several radio stations in Central Greece instead recently received a letter from the HEDNO (Hellenic Electricity Distribution Network Operator) threatening them with interruption of electricity service at their transmitter sites if they could not provide documentation proving the site was licensed. HEDNO later stated that the letters were “sent in error.”