The media landscape in Greece has been described as suffering from a lack of pluralism, whereby a handful of media moguls set the predominant discourses through their newspapers, TV stations, and online outlets. In 2016, Greece finished 89th in the World Press Freedom Index
, making it the second-lowest country ranking in the European Union with 80% of the population showing distrust in the country’s TV channels.
Before the leftist ruling party SYRIZA came into power, it pledged to regulate the lawlessness of the media scene and dismantle the old establishments of interest-driven reporting. A series of recent consecutive incidents like the on-air intervention of a media owner in a morning show on his TV channel, or the resistance to a new law introducing a bidding process for private broadcast licenses, highlight that the regime of media “oligarchs” is still firmly rooted.
The boss on line one
On June 6, Dimitris Kontominas, the Alpha media group owner, a leading TV, radio and production group, intervened in a morning talk show on Alpha TV channel to express his dissatisfaction about what he described as shameful comments over private initiatives. Mr. Kontominas called on live television to state "I am ashamed as I have never been in my life with what I heard today from Greek citizens who work in a TV channel that does everything to help the people”!
He continued by demanding that the journalists apologize, while angrily adding that “it is a shame, when we have such a big investment, to talk nonsense. It is an area full of refugees, crooks, prostitutes and the like and you talk against this investment. Instead of feeling ashamed for all those things that are not being done, we feel ashamed about the things that are being done.”
The incident was sparked when one of the panellists criticized the deal for the sale and long-term lease of the old Athens airport of Elliniko, a prerequisite demanded by international lenders in order to unlock loans needed to pay off debt to the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank. The Lamda-led consortium, a Greek developer that will own part of the property and get a 99-year lease, is planning to turn the 444-acre site into a tourist, business and commercial hub.
Since the beginning of the debt crisis, state assets have always been on the table for privatization as an integral feature of paying off international bailouts. While supporters of such investments claim that they generate jobs and ultimately boost the economy, critics see them as “selling off” public property. “These investors pay out of their pockets, instead of robbing the state with oil, cigarettes, cocaine. It is a shame to say all those things. You should apologize. This is not an opinion,” Mr Kontominas yelled when the TV show host tried to calm her boss down.
The intervention was an extreme incident in the history of Greek media but not a surprising one. In a blatant, upsetting manner, the media mogul crossed the line between covered manipulation to absolute muzzling, only to set an unprecedented level of censorship. The incident symbolizes the intertwined connection between private media, state and business that has historically dominated the Greek media scene.
Although there are no recent official data on the total media numbers, the deregulation of the state monopoly of broadcasting frequencies in the late 1980s has led to an overwhelming amount of private TV channels and radio stations, on national and local level. According to the report "Media Policy and Independent Journalism in Greece
" by Open Society Foundations, “from a broadcasting field of two public television channels and four radio stations in the late 1980s, it has become an overcrowded environment comprising 160 private television channels and 1,200 private radio stations, none of them equipped with an official license to broadcast, but only temporary licenses renewed by successive governments”.
Despite the high volume, pluralism has not benefited. Media legislation does not contain specific thresholds or limits to prevent high levels of horizontal concentration of ownership as noted by the 2014 Media Pluralism Monitor
. This legal and regulatory framework has urged the concentration of private press, television, and radio outlets into large organizations since its early days. To this day a handful of media groups own the biggest nationally circulated newspapers, magazines, broadcast media, as well as press distribution agencies.
Traditionally, the owners of the biggest media conglomerates, the “oligarchs”, as they are commonly referred to in Greece, are also active in other sectors of the economy, such as construction, shipping, health services, new technologies, and banking business, and often end up with favourable government deals. The support is granted through advertising of banks and state owned enterprises, approving loans to private broadcasters that are currently in debt due to the sharp decline of income from advertisements; assignments of public works (roads and government buildings construction etc.) or public property management to media owners with investments in other business sectors.
In this way, media are used as spaces for indirect profit through the strengthening of relations with politicians and the acquisition of state contracts. “Greek media industry controlled by business tycoons whose other successful businesses enable them to subsidize their loss-making media operations. These media operations in turn enable them to exercise political and economic influence. The result is that the media often provides an image of national and international events that is almost uniform but for its division along party lines” as a US Embassy cable by Wikileaks reveals
Taking MEGA Channel, one of the most well known private channels, as an example, its three main shareholders are some of the richest and most influential families in the country. George Bobolas, the main shareholder, is also the owner of Ellaktor SA construction company which has participated in multi-billion euro contracts with the state, such as the Athens Ring Road, the Rio-Antirio Bridge, the Acropolis Museum and the Athens Olympic Sports Complex. Vardis Vardinogiannis is engaged in the oil and shipping industry, while Stavros Psycharis controls the DOL media company.
The triangle of power between media, state and business is well intertwined resulting in a state whereby journalists are too careful to avoid criticism to the government of the day, while media owners exploit their outlets for purposes beyond communication. The relationship is a dialectical one and a vicious circle is fuelled by governments offering financial support to the media that in exchange offer favourable reporting to the ruling party’s actions. Over the last year, many cases have highlighted how the two sides interfere in each other’s work.
In February 2016, the publisher of a low circulation newspaper was arrested with two other journalists on charges of extorting huge sums in advertising from officials at public organizations, banks and businesses. The publisher Panagiotis Mavrikos, who was charged with felony and misdemeanor, including blackmail and being part of a criminal gang, had appeared in the payroll of New Democracy receiving the amount of €18,450 per month, according to the newspaper Parapolitika.
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Prior to SYRIZA’s electoral victory in January 2015 the party had committed to tackle the long-standing relationships of clientelism in Greece and declare a war to the media “oligarchs”. A year later a parliamentary examination committee started an investigation of the legality of advertising expenditure of Greek banks to media and political parties over a period of the last 10 years. The Committee was established following the proposal of the ruling SYRIZA-ANEL coalition last March.
In another attempt in February 2016, parliament passed a law, backed by the ruling coalition and strongly criticized by the opposition and the Association of Private TV Stations of National Range. The new law, which is part of the country’s commitment under the latest bailout, aims to regulate the media market and, allegedly, bring to a halt the link between state and private interests.
The aim is to eventually launch a channel license competition for broadcasting tenders where four out of eight national TV stations would obtain a licence. The biggest media channels dissatisfied with the decision appealed to the Council of State, Greece’s highest administrative court. The application of MEGA Channel, which is threatened with bankruptcy due to a huge amount of overdue debts, was rejected on June 30.
A few days after the bill was amended by parliament, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was accused of an alleged bribe attempt to media owner Stavros Psycharis. The newspaper “To Vima” – that belongs to Mr. Psycharis’ media group - published an article revealing secret meetings between the two men prior to SYRIZA’s electoral victory in January 2015. According to the article Mr. Tsipras allegedly asked for the support of the influential man, promising that loans taken by his media conglomerate will be erased, and offering political mediation for the acquisition of the total ownership of MEGA TV channel.
After the publication, both sides engaged in a war of words where each one accused the other for falsification of the facts. Whether the allegations are true or not the by now unimpeachable Tsipras began to test the water. The question is whether he and his party will manage to escape immune or will go missing in the media abyss.