Greek media and independent journalism under austerity

May 16, 2016 / By Petros Iosifidis, Open Democracy

The study on Media Policy and Independent Journalism in Greece  I co-authored for the Open Society Foundations in 2014-15 identified the most urgent problems facing media policy in Greece and how they affect independent journalism. The study was based on desktop research, literature review of sources in English and Greek, as well as a set of in-depth interviews with relevant actors, conducted in Athens in November 2014.

The main findings were that the country’s widespread patronage system has negatively impacted the press and silenced the voices of independent and investigative journalists. The market is controlled by a few powerful interests who dominate the national discussion through their newspapers, television stations, and online outlets, stifling the influence of voices and narratives outside the establishment and exerting strict control over independent journalists. The closure of Greece’s public broadcaster Hellenic Radio Television (ERT) in 2013 by the then Conservative-Socialist coalition government substantially damaged pluralism in the domestic media landscape. At the same time, the ongoing economic crisis and the imposition of austerity measures has drastically reduced the income of private media outlets, forcing many journalists to face layoffs or vulnerable work conditions.

Historically, the Greek state has intervened in all aspects of economic and social life, including the media field. It has acted as censor (during the dictatorship from 1967-1974), owner (of public television and radio) and subsidiser of newspapers and electronic media. The cultivation of close relations between the press and political power, with public advertising and public subsidies being one of the main sources of income for the press, has contributed to the entrenchment of a journalistic culture cautious about criticising the government of the day.

Since the 1980s and 1990s, deregulation has increased the viewing choices for audiences in Greece, but the private channels mainly respond to market preferences (i.e. advertisers and sponsors) and struggle to come up with a pluralistic output that would benefit citizens. Eventually, what prevails in commercial channels’ daily programming is mainly bland entertainment, rather than programmes tailored for culture, education and the arts. The main target audience of the commercial TV networks is the wealthy middle class and therefore programming is tailored-made to satisfy their needs and preferences. As a result, provision for the minorities or special interest groups is also limited.

At the same time, the legal and regulatory framework has contributed to concentration of ownership of press, television and radio outlets. As a result, the market has been dominated by a handful of powerful newspaper interests, which have expanded into audiovisual and online media. In 2013-2014, the saturated audiovisual market comprised about 130 private television channels (among which the five most important national channels in terms of market share and advertising revenue were MEGA Channel, ANT1, ALPHA, STAR Channel, and SKAI TV), and more than 1,000 private radio stations with negligible market shares.

The independent regulatory authorities, notably the National Council for Radio and TV, have functioned superficially and ambivalently and have allowed the establishment of a media market functioning without clear and sound entrepreneurial criteria: all private channels operate with temporary rather than permanent licenses, granted through a formal competition process, and most of them are in serious debts dues to loans provided with inadequate collateral.

This patronage system has acquired pretty wide and complex dimensions after the establishment of the private TV and radio market, whose owners have been entrepreneurs also active in key sectors of the economy, notably in public infrastructure and procurement projects. Media organisations have thus been implicated in a complex intertwining of political and economic interests, often termed Diaploki.

The fiscal crisis and austerity period

The contours of intertwining interests have become more pronounced under the fiscal crisis; the so-called ‘triangle of power’, which involves the political system, economic interests (including increasingly the banking system) and media corporations, has been strengthened through the development of tighter bonds of complicity. Mainstream media have routinely conspired in favour of austerity measures and have been overall uncritical toward the state and the banking system, which in turn has supported them and their enterprises through public projects and advertising. At the same time, disenchantment of the public towards media has grown, as indicated by falling viewing rates.

Such circumstances are unfavourable to objective and investigative journalism. Dealings between entrepreneurial interests (including banking ones) and the state can take many shapes and forms, including often using legislation to accommodate particular business interests. When exposed by alternative media these affairs generate confrontation between the individuals whose interests have been revealed (entrepreneurs and politicians) and the journalists involved. The non-mainstream magazines Unfollow and HotDoc, for example, have been on the receiving end of many lawsuits for exposing scandals. Other practices against independent journalist have included: false claims, direct threats against journalists’ personal and family life, conspiracy, forgery, secret surveillance, or stealing of sensitive data.

Austerity has led to the closure of several media outlets and has added to the pressure on journalists in many ways: self-censorship so as to safeguard their jobs, low-status work conditions and very low salaries, and increased editorial control and censorship of critical views on governmental policies. The rise of internet news media, though providing prospects for alternative expression, in actual fact have replicated the dominance of big conglomerates, have reproduced cheap content and have provided a space of unregulated working environments with poor conditions and abusive employer practices.

The ERT closure and the digitalization process

The abrupt closure of the public broadcaster ERT in 2013 further damaged pluralism in Greek journalism, for ERT was the only broadcaster – in a market dominated by unlicensed commercial channels – with a legal obligation to provide objective, unbiased news. In addition, and notwithstanding its organisational problems and malfunctions, ERT had a diverse program and a wide audience, both in Greece and abroad. The shutdown contributed to a deteriorating landscape regarding the overall quality of journalistic independence. The dismissal of some 2,700 permanent and 300 temporary employees with no prior consultation has forced them into unemployment or to seek work in private media under uncertain conditions. ERT’s replacement, NERIT, was criticized for not functioning as an independent public broadcaster.

The ERT shutdown also left the development of digital terrestrial television (DTT) to the large private media operators, with further consequences for pluralism and democracy. In the last five years, the Digea consortium, controlled by the private national television channels, has established itself as the sole provider of DTT through the manipulation of the conditions of the relevant auction for the allocation of digital frequencies. Digea controls the digital terrain and its monopoly raises concerns about pluralism and independent journalism under austerity conditions, for the visibility of anti-austerity opinion on its frequencies is expected to be limited.

Prospects for independent journalism

If the media landscape under austerity creates bleak conditions for media freedom and for journalists to earn a livelihood, then a post-austerity agenda could restart the economy and have a positive impact on employment circumstances for journalists. The newly elected (in January 2015) left-wing majority (SYRIZA) government in Greece has pledged to introduce legislation that will address the long-standing problems highlighted in this report. The materialisation of the pledges of the new government to conduct a competition for granting legal licenses to private channels could contribute to a redrawing of the media landscape. Most importantly, the new government reopened ERT in June 2015; the restoration of ERT as the national public broadcaster is expected to contribute to cultural diversity and political pluralism. But the public broadcaster should enjoy financial and editorial independence in order to serve the public interest. Regulatory authorities that function more independently will be crucial in this regard.

These efforts are likely to create an environment that protects journalists and their independence as the country strives to tackle the corruption and systemic failures that led to the economic, social, and political crisis. Furthermore, self-organized groups and networks of journalists and other media personnel have started exploring new models of journalism. Prominent examples are the Editors’ Newspaper (EfSyn), the magazine Unfollow, and the online Press Project outlet. Greater mobilization by civil society, involving trade unions and universities among others, is needed to promote pluralism, transparency, and objective journalism. Links with inter-governmental organizations such as the United Nations (UN) and the EU, as well as with international organizations, will be pivotal.

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