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The Shutdown of ERT and Greece’s Media Landscape: a Modern-Day Wild Wild West

The history of Greek broadcast media relations with the government reflects attempts at authoritarian control.

It was the evening of March 27, 2001. In Spata, outside of Athens, the finishing touches were being made to the 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. Late that evening, riot police stormed the mountaintop, which houses the transmitters of most radio and television stations broadcasting in Athens. And in an unprecedented tour de force, police shut down 66 radio stations. The official rationale given was that these stations, which had not received licenses in a recent licensing tender, would endanger flight safety by interfering with aviation frequencies to be used by the new airport.

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Let’s flash-forward 12 years. On June 11, 2013, Greek government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou announced the shutdown of ERT, Greece’s national public broadcaster. Within hours, transmitters were shut off and television screens across Greece went dark. Similar to 2001, riot police were dispatched to the mountaintop transmission facilities in Athens and Thessaloniki, where ERT engineers allegedly were forced out at gunpoint, allowing police to secure control of the transmitters.

The shutdown of ERT generated global headlines. To fully understand the actions of the Greek government in shutting down ERT, however, it is important to examine the history of how the broadcast media landscape in Greece has developed, the convoluted and haphazard regulatory regime under which it operates and the long tradition of government meddling in Greece’s media.

Breaking the State Monopoly

Until the 1980s, broadcasting in Greece was a state monopoly, and ERT was subjected to tremendous government interference. This began to change in 1987, when the first municipal radio stations began operations. The most visible of these stations were established in Greece’s largest cities: Athens, Thessaloniki and Piraeus. Foreshadowing the interplay between media and politics that was to follow, these stations were opened by the mayors of the respective cities, all members of the New Democracy political party, as a form of opposition to the governing PASOK political party.

It did not take long for private radio stations to get into the act. Some of these stations were run by pirates who had operated from rooftops in years prior, but they were soon joined by stations launched by powerful business and shipping magnates, who realized early how a voice on the airwaves could benefit them and their interests. The Greek government, seemingly unprepared for the onslaught of new stations, reacted only spasmodically, such as by sending riot police in attempts to shut down the municipal stations in Athens and Thessaloniki. Eventually, though, new legislation was passed permitting private broadcasting. In a sign of things to come, the new legislation did not specifically set forth criteria under which stations would be licensed. The solutions were often political: The first two national television broadcast licenses issued in 1989 were granted to two publishing consortiums: one representing the “center-left,” the other representing the “center-right.” Only the first of these two licensed entities ever materialized, becoming the present-day Mega Channel, Greece’s largest private television station.

In the years thereafter, radio and television stations proliferated throughout the country. This era is referred to as the era of “free broadcasting,” but it did not last long. In fact, it’s doubtful if this supposed freedom ever existed. While one might have described the broadcasting situation in Greece in the early 1990s as anarchic, a more appropriate term is “controlled chaos.” Most stations operated without a license, permitting the government to use the situation to its advantage, making empty promises regarding future licensing to stations that “played along” with the government while punishing those that did not. One infamous example was that of Kanali 67, operated by the minor “Centrists Union” political party. The president of the party, Vassilis Leventis, was outspoken about both major parties in Greece, and it was this sort of political commentary that led to riot police shutting down the station in 1993 (although it later reopened). Hellas 62, an Evangelical television station, was shut down for “broadcasting without a license.” A similar fate befell Radio Kivotos, a collectively run radio station in Thessaloniki, which was repeatedly harassed by police before being shut down for good in 1997. Jeronimo Groovy TV, an Athens-based station that was one of the first to broadcast music videos and which became popular with the city’s youth, was subjected to co-channel interference from ERT, often making the station’s signal impossible to receive. When the station was sold in 2003 to prominent journalist Giorgos Tragas, the interference ceased.

“Controlling” the Chaos

Formal licenses for television stations were not issued again until 1993, when just prior to that year’s parliamentary elections, nine licenses were issued to private television stations to broadcast nationwide. One entity that was licensed, owned by the politically influential Kouris Media Group, did not even operate a television station. But with license in hand, Kanali 5 was launched, broadcasting in Athens on frequencies that already were used by ERT to retransmit foreign-language television stations. Unlike its response to Jeronimo Groovy, ERT quickly freed those frequencies for use by Kanali 5.

In 1996, the government issued a tender for 20 FM radio licenses for the Athens region, attracting 86 applicants, while more than 100 radio stations operated in the city. Nothing happened until March 2001, when prior to the opening of the city’s new airport, the government released the list of the 20 stations that had received the greatest number of points in the licensing process and would be licensed. Following an outcry by influential media groups whose stations were not on the list, eight additional stations were granted “temporary” licenses by Greece’s National Council of Radio and Television (NCRTV) under circumstances lacking in transparency: These eight stations did not correspond with the stations ranked 21st through 28th in the point system. One such station, Profit FM (owned by Tragas), had been on the air for only 20 days prior to its licensing. The government, which until that point had claimed that the operation of more than 20 private FM frequencies would create dangerous interference to the new airport’s aviation frequencies, now claimed that up to 28 frequencies could “safely” broadcast.

Despite that, there were many who doubted that the PASOK government at the time had the political will to shut down such a large number of radio stations, many of which were popular with listeners. They were wrong. In the early hours of March 28, 2001, riot police cut off power to the stations that were not licensed. By morning, 66 stations were off the air. The major television outlets and newspapers, whose owners were the beneficiaries of these developments (because their stations were licensed), hardly uttered a word. One station, Skai 100.4, which gave airtime to personnel from the silenced stations, was threatened with revocation of its license and quickly fell in line. Notably, a blind eye was turned to the second and third frequencies utilized by many of the stations that remained on air, which presumably were used to cover hard-to-reach parts of Athens’ hilly terrain. The government’s claims about excessive radio frequencies causing interference immediately were debunked.

Facing pressure, the Greek government declared a new bid for 15 FM licenses in Athens, which would replace the eight “temporary” licenses and add seven additional stations. A point system again was utilized, which was repeatedly tweaked until the desired outcome was reached: All 15 stations that were licensed belonged to major business interests, including some that already possessed at least one license. At the last minute, one station, Athens Business Radio, owned by the Kouris Media Group, was licensed to operate as a financial news station. Instead, a pop music station was launched. Seven of the eight “temporarily” licensed stations from 2001, including Profit FM, were licensed. The only station that was not licensed, belonging to the influential Church of Piraeus, remained on the air anyway, because Greece’s telecommunications authority (EETT) ignored the station’s unlicensed broadcasts during its many raids of the Mount Imittos transmitters. A growing number of professionally-run “pirate” stations also operated from Mount Imittos, many of which remain on the air today. However, other stations that had not been licensed but, like the Church of Piraeus, attempted to broadcast anyway, were silenced. Stations continued to broadcast with as much wattage as they desired and, for a while, on more than one frequency if they chose. For instance, Skai operated a second transmitter on 100.6 FM. Around 2003, its programming on this transmitter was replaced by dead air. Ten years later, dead air continues on the frequency, while Skai touts its environmental stewardship through its media outlets.

Tailored Legislation

A variety of legal challenges ensued, and in 2004, the Council of State, Greece’s highest court, issued a decision in which the 2002 licensing bid was invalidated. Combined with the impending expiration of the original licenses from 2001, which had four-year terms, it meant that the government was obliged to launch a new licensing bid. What it did instead was more creative. Inserted into the text of an unrelated law passed by the Parliament was language that legalized any radio station that broadcast in Athens on December 31, 2004, and that met certain basic criteria. This covered all 35 licensees, plus a few additional stations, but even here, politics reared its face. Certain stations applied to the NCRTV and were legalized under this new law, including the Church of Piraeus. Most of these stations were soon sold to major business interests. One characteristic example is that of Radio Veronica, one of Greece’s original pirate stations that later operated as a legitimate broadcaster. It had applied to the NCRTV three times to be legalized under the new law and had been rejected each time. On its fourth appeal, however, as rumors circulated that the station was about to be sold, the station was legalized. It was sold to a consortium including the Kouris Media Group and prominent journalist Nikos Hatzinikolaou and now operates as Real FM, a news station that is now the most listened-to station in Athens. Another station, Athens Shock Radio, was legalized but had its legality stripped by the NCRTV when, after it began operating as a pop music station by the name of Hot FM, it reached the number two position in the Athenian audience ratings. The NCRTV claimed that the station had been legalized “by mistake.” Other stations that also met the criteria of the new law but which were not about to be sold to major media interests were simply not legalized. Atlantis FM, a rock music station popular with youths, was one such station. It eventually was forced to appeal to the Council of State, which issued a decision allowing it to remain open until a new licensing tender was completed.

This was not the first time that such tailored legislation was utilized. To this day, television stations throughout Greece and radio stations outside of Athens operate under similar laws. Regional and local television stations are considered to be legally operating if they applied for a license during the licensing tender of 1998, while radio stations outside of Athens are considered to be operating legally if they were on the air on November 1, 1999, and had previously applied for a license. Moreover, radio stations are required to operate on the same frequency they utilized in 1999 and to broadcast from only one transmission site. This situation poses a chilling effect on the media landscape, as new entrants to the marketplace are shut out unless they purchase an existing station. In 2011, the Council of State ruled that the perpetual state of temporary legality and the government’s failure to complete licensing tenders was unconstitutional; a decision that did not change the Greek state’s behavior in the slightest.

Uneven Enforcement and Legal Peculiarities

Who is in charge of this regulatory morass? Licensing is overseen by the NCRTV, a supposedly independent commission with seven members, appointed by the political parties in parliament. The terms of its members have expired, while some have completed their second and final term in their position. Instead of appointing new members, though, as legally required, successive governments have included riders in unrelated legislation, extending the terms of the NCRTV commissioners for six months at a time.

In the meantime, the NCRTV has continued to issue decisions that often have been the object of controversy or even ridicule. In 2007, a television station was fined over its broadcasts of “Spongebob Squarepants,” because of the “homosexual” content it featured. On another occasion, the NCRTV issued a decision shutting down radio station Best Radio in Athens, rather than the unrelated Best TV in Thessaloniki. More recently, the NCRTV has levied fines against Real FM for the “inappropriate” content of such programs as “Ellinofreneia,” a popular program featuring political satire. Notably, the same program was never fined when it aired on Skai, whose political stance is far more favorable toward the political establishment.

Recently, the NCRTV issued a license to radio station Hristianismos FM, operated by Greece’s Pentecostal church. The station, which did not receive a license in 2001 and was shut down, recently had a decision issued in its favor by the Council of State, which ruled that the station had wrongly not been licensed. Despite the issuance of a license, however, a frequency was not allocated to the station, and it remains off the air. In another decision, the NCRTV ordered a private radio station in the city of Kalamata to resume broadcasts on the frequency it operated on in 1999, even though that frequency had since been taken over by ERT to broadcast one of its radio services. Similarly, the NCRTV ordered a radio station in the island of Lesvos to return to the frequency it utilized in 1999, even though that frequency has since been occupied by a radio station operating in close proximity from Turkey. Indeed, the NCRTV has shown itself to be particularly harsh and inflexible toward stations in Greece’s sensitive border regions. As Turkish broadcasters have flourished in the past decade and dominate the airwaves in much of the Aegean, the NCRTV has forced Greek radio stations off the air over trivial matters or has confined them to one transmitter site, leading to a sharp reduction in the amount of Greek voices heard in these areas. Finally, the NCRTV has forced television and radio broadcasters to classify their programming in one of two categories: entertainment or information. This directive is often flaunted, with enforcement inversely proportional to the political influence of the station in question. Stations are unable to change their classification once it has been set, but stations belonging to powerful interests have been able to broadcast news programming on stations classified for “entertainment” without running afoul of the NCRTV. Smaller stations, however, have been fined for the same practice.

A new media law passed by the New Democracy government in 2007 was touted as the solution to the ills of the Greek broadcast media landscape. Providing new guidelines for the licensing of stations, it also set new financial standards under which stations were to operate, and it officially permitted the ownership of multiple stations, which had been illegal, but tolerated, previously. Not only did licensing tenders not follow, but the provisions of the law that were enforced had mostly disastrous impacts on the media. The new financial requirements were particularly onerous for small municipal stations, many operating in regions with little commercial incentive for private broadcasters to operate. Some went off the air. Concentration of ownership was similarly destructive. As major media and publishing interests purchased multiple stations, they accumulated massive amounts of debt. When the economic crisis impacted Greece in 2009, these companies fell upon hard times. Some went bankrupt; several FM stations in Athens have been replaced by silence or static. More notably, national broadcaster Alter TV (formerly Kanali 5) has been off the air since November 2011, leaving behind almost 500 million euros in debt and hundreds of unemployed staffers who are owed several months of back wages.

The 2007 law also contained a provision that is likely unique to Greece: Broadcast stations owned by political parties in Parliament were not required to possess a license to operate. Two parties benefited from this provision: Syriza and LAOS. Syriza established radio station 105.5 Sto Kokkino, which had first begun broadcasting in Athens in 2005, without any legal status. LAOS reopened Radio Asty, a station that had been shut down in 2001 after not receiving a license. Similarly, Art TV, also owned by LAOS, recently was permitted to broadcast nationally by the NCRTV, despite the fact that the party no longer is in parliament.

The other main regulatory body in the Greek broadcasting landscape is the National Telecommunications Commission (EETT), an “independent” body that oversees frequency assignments and regulates the spectrum. The EETT has often raided the facilities of broadcasters that were alleged to be operating illegally, but it also has been known to turn a blind eye toward certain broadcasters, such as the Church of Piraeus, which operated with impunity after not receiving a license in 2002. The professional pirate stations that operate in Athens also have escaped repercussions. Notably, many of these stations go off the air just before the EETT raids the transmission facilities, only to come back on the air once EETT crews depart.

The EETT was responsible for the recent tender that was issued for the company (or companies) that would be granted a license to build a nationwide network of over-the-air digital television transmission facilities. This is where ERT comes back into the picture. According to ERT’s former technical director, Nikos Mihalitsis, this tender is another example of tailored legislation, as the requirements set forth are written in such a manner as to benefit only one applicant: DIGEA, a consortium of Greece’s six largest private television stations. The timing of the tender also coincided with the shutdown of ERT, effectively shutting it out of the licensing process.

When Oligarchs Control the Discourse

The influence of Greece’s major private media outlets, and the oligarchs who own them, cannot be overstated. Without exception, each of these media moguls is heavily involved in the country’s banking, business, construction and shipping sectors. Their companies are often the beneficiaries of lucrative government contracts, and they have not hesitated to use their media outlets as a means of pressuring the government of the day for contracts or other favors. Indeed, most of these outlets are not profitable and are sustained not for their money-making ability but because of the political and public influence they provide. Mega Channel illustrates this. Owned by two prominent publishing and business interests, Pegasos Publishing and the Lambrakis Press Group, Mega recently was forced to borrow 98 million euros to service previous debts and meet operating expenses at a time when lending to individuals and small businesses in Greece has dried up and when most of Greece’s banks have been recapitalized. One of Mega Channel’s major shareholders, Giorgos Bobolas, also holds a minority stake in Hellas Gold, the subsidiary established by the Canadian Eldorado Gold to conduct controversial gold mining activities in Skouries, in northern Greece.

Loans are not the only way Greece’s major media outlets sustain themselves. For more than two decades, they have benefited from lucrative government advertising, while they have not paid legally mandated fees to the Greek state for their usage of the public airwaves. In the meantime, they provide the public low-quality programming, such as Turkish soap operas and celebrity gossip talk shows, while their newscasts typically feature pro-austerity and pro-government editorializing. For instance, just before the parliamentary elections in June 2012, ANT1 TV circumvented a ban on campaign-related programming prior to an election by broadcasting a “documentary” on the dire consequences that would befall Greece if it were to leave the Eurozone. The message was clear: Vote for the pro-austerity, “pro-Europe” New Democracy party.

ERT: Myths and Reality

Ironically, many of the criticisms levied against ERT in the aftermath of its shutdown are applicable not to ERT but to the major private media outlets. ERT was profitable, and it did not receive funds from the national budget, but from a license fee levied on electricity bills. Indeed, 25 percent of this license fee did not go to ERT – but to a “green energy” fund. And while ERT was criticized for its “highly paid” employees, such employees represented a small minority of ERT’s total workforce. The highly paid employees were, in fact, mostly direct government appointments, some of whom were appointed by the current New Democracy-PASOK governing coalition, which now presents itself as a defender of transparency and meritocracy through its shutdown of the “corrupt” and “spendthrift” ERT. Furthermore, ERT provided radio and television coverage in remote regions that are of little commercial interest to private broadcasters, while it was the only broadcaster in Greece that operated worldwide satellite and shortwave services for the Greek diaspora, as well as radio stations featuring classical music, world music and broadcasts in foreign languages for immigrants in Greece. ERT also operated the country’s only national music ensembles. And its news coverage, while often tainted by government influence, offered occasional instances of criticism against government policy. It was one such instance that, in October 2012, led to the firing of ERT morning television show hosts Kostas Arvanitis and Marilena Katsimi, because of their criticism of Minister of Citizen Protection Nikos Dendias over his threats to sue The Guardian regarding its publication of an article reporting that several Greek protesters had been tortured by the police. The firing of the show hosts was apparently the result of orders received from government officials.

The vicious crackdown against ERT was not without precedent, but it shocked the public nonetheless. In the days following ERT’s shutdown, several stations, including 902 TV and 105.5 Sto Kokkino, retransmitted the protest broadcasts of ERT’s employees. Both were threatened with revocation of their licenses, while 902 TV’s digital broadcast (via the DIGEA consortium) would be replaced by color bars each time ERT’s protest programming was rebroadcast. On July 29, after ERT employees and ordinary citizens organized a demonstration outside ERT’s Mount Imittos transmission facilities, eight individuals were violently arrested on trumped-up charges of damaging public property, endangering air travel and defiance against police authorities. Several other ERT transmission facilities throughout Greece that continued to rebroadcast ERT’s protest programming similarly were shut down. In Kalamata, ERT’s transmission facility allegedly was shut down by a private security team working for the owner of a local television station that supports the New Democracy government. And in Lesvos, ERT’s transmission facility allegedly was shut down by the owner of a local television station, who is said to have broken into the facilities himself, shutting off the transmitters then changing the lock on the door. The individual in question recently has been convicted of extortion and has been implicated in other criminal matters.

On June 20, the Council of State, following an appeal by ERT’s employee union, issued a vague decision calling for the resumption of “public broadcasting,” including television and radio broadcasts and an Internet presence. More than two months later, only an interim “public” television station has been established. Known as DT, this station is public in name only. It was launched from private studios formerly used by Mega Channel and is transmitted digitally by the DIGEA consortium. Its signal is fed to transmitters by OTE, the Greek telecommunications giant owned by Deutsche Telecom. Recently, DT announced that it would begin broadcasting newscasts, which will be edited and prepared at Mega Channel’s studios. In the meantime, DT’s broadcasts can be described as amateurish. Films have been aired without the broadcast rights having been secured, and programming from ERT’s archives has been shown with ERT’s logo visible on screen. Lucrative programming contracts, including those for Formula 1 racing and the Eurobasket tournament, have been redistributed to private broadcasters. And the full launch of the new public broadcaster, which was to follow two months after ERT’s shutdown, has been pushed back to Christmas.

A Tradition of Intolerance

The shutdown of ERT does not represent the only recent crackdown against media in Greece. In October 2011, journalist Kostas Vaxevanis was arrested and charged with violations of privacy over the publication of the “Lagarde List” of alleged Greek tax evaders with Swiss bank accounts. Although he was acquitted, prosecutors, citing “inconsistencies” in his first trial, will try him again. Vaxevanis, in September 2012, was also the target of an alleged assassination attempt. That same month, a Facebook user with the pseudonym “Geron Pastitsios” was arrested and charged with blasphemy for managing a Facebook page satirizing Elder Paisios, a deceased monk who is revered by some in the Orthodox Christian faith. In recent months, police have shut down student-run radio stations in Athens, Patra and Xanthi. Three years ago, in August 2012, journalist Sokratis Giolias was assassinated. Giolias was the previously anonymous administrator of a popular and controversial news blog known as “Troktiko.” A domestic terrorist group that has not been active since then claimed responsibility, but a recent series of investigative articles in Vaxevanis’ Hot Doc magazine have questioned this story while highlighting two individuals, acting under the possible direction of prominent journalist Makis Triantafillopoulos, as possible suspects. No arrests have been made in connection with Giolias’ murder.

The legal limbo under which the media operate in Greece is beneficial to the major media groups and their owners, as they freely continue to pressure the government and influence the public for their own benefit while new entrants are kept out of the marketplace. It’s entirely possible that this same group of oligarchs pressured the government to silence ERT. In the meantime, successive New Democracy and PASOK administrations in Greece have created a media environment that is chaotic on its surface but in fact is deeply controlled by the state and prominent private interests. The current New Democracy-PASOK governing coalition has shown no signs of reversing this trend. These are not the actions of a government that claims to be “pro-European” and “reformist” and whose electoral victory in June 2012 was celebrated by much of the international media. Instead, they are the actions of a political system with a history of authoritarian, anti-democratic, self-serving rule.

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