How freedom, objectivity, and quality of television in Greece was determined by the way it was commercialized

Photos: Gerasimos Domenikos / FOS PHOTOS

The launching and the evolution of commercial broadcasting in Greece is a story that far exceeds the capacity of a medium length text. Matina Papachristoudi, a well-known journalist who covers Greek Media, maintains an extensive archive with material on the Greek private television, yet it goes back 28 years only.

It was just in November 1989 when the Greeks, for the first time, could watch a TV channel that appeared having no strings attached to the Greek State. Or had some?

The launch of private television

The way that the establishment of private TV channels was implemented in Greece, perfectly illustrates the ties between the new media owners and politicians. Private TV was met with a mixture of fear, for what was yet unknown and thus challenging to control, and with anticipation for what could serve several entrepreneurial and political interests, more efficiently.

“We will knock down the satellites if needed”, replied Dimitris Maroudas when told that technological progress cannot be halted by political will. Maroudas was the spokesperson for the Greek government, and he served as Alternate Minister of the Presidency of Government, a man close to the Socialist Party (PASOK) leader and prime minister, Andreas Papandreou. Indeed, the then government appeared reluctant to speed up the abolition of state monopoly on television.

Matina Papachristoudi reports that “PASOK already held complete control over the Public Broadcaster. Political talk-shows were orchestrated by Ministers through phone calls. Those in power were feeling threatened by a medium they didn’t know how to handle”.

Τhe entire opposition strongly supported the launch of private broadcasting, both from the conservative side, such as the right-wing Mayors of the three predominant municipalities of Greece, Athens, Piraeus, and Thessaloniki, as well as from the left. Papachristoudi remembers the Greek Communist Party newspaper publishing headlines “for the right of the Left to Television”. There was however one significant case of a politician who expressed his objection openly.

In 1989, right-wing MP, and later President of the Hellenic Republic, Kostis Stefanopoulos, gave a memorable speech in the parliament, condemning the way that TV Channel licenses were granted. Stefanopoulos asserted “…The Greek Parliament should interfere to ensure that dangerous people will not be granted broadcasting licenses. We must deny licenses to the current Press publishers…”

Kostis Stefanopoulos, President of Greece, 1995–2005

Stefanopoulos referenced a specific article of Law 1866 of 1989 (Greek laws are numbered and referenced by the year when they were approved), according to which, the publishers of newspapers at the time would be given priority and their applications for launching a TV channel would have preferential status. While it was not rare in other countries for the Press owners to also acquire audiovisual media, Greece was the only case where a situation like this was legally facilitated.

As Matina Papachristoudi describes it “The priority status was awarded, in return for the loans that specific publishers provided to politicians.” This institutional ratification of the empowerment of Media owners, dictated the course that private television would follow, in a predetermined way.

Attempts to shape chaos

“The key-word is ‘broadcasting chaos’. Do type ‘broadcasting chaos’ in Google and check what comes up”, Papachristoudi says. We did. Over 800 Google results elaborate around this cliché phrase of Greek Media reality.

The first channels that were launched in the last days of 1989 and the beginning of 1990 had been granted a five year license. When those expired, they simply continued operating, as usual, despite being typically illegal.

As Antonis Vgontzas, counsel of former prime minister Papandreou and member of National Broadcasting Council had said, on the occasion of the second Greek Summit for Mass Media in 1993: “There is no other case of legislation that has been ignored so ostentatiously. Private television in Greece was established by itself. Violently. With obvious alliances or hidden agreements”.

There have been three legislative attempts in total to license the TV Channels. The 1997 attempt, when there were plenty of submissions, however, they never actually went through a licensing process. The second attempt took place in 2003 but was suspended by the Supreme Court on legal grounds, before it even commenced.

The third attempt took place in 2016, after 70 hours of bidding among the potential or current TV-Channel owners and the associated Ministry. The contest was later declared void by the Council of State and a new phase to it is meant to begin in the following days of December 2017.

Throughout its history, Greek private television operated under a state of a “temporary license”, which, according to Papachristoudi, is “an invention of the Greek State, to overcome the obstacle of legality. The term ‘temporary license’ was coined after the first failed attempt of licensing”.

Impact in the content

“Greek private television was forged in chaos. One of the reasons why is that it was created not by people that had any experience with TV, but from people coming from the Press that were ‘planted’ there by the newspaper owners. The only ones who were familiar with television, were those who came from the public broadcaster”, Papachristoudi explains.

The 1989 legislation that enabled the launch of private TV also established the National Broadcasting Council. The Council could have played a decisive role in a number of issues, from licensing to dispensing fines in the occasions of non-compliance with journalistic ethics. However, it held a decorative role.

According to Nikos Leandros [1], Professor of Economics specialized in Media Economics, the actual absence of the National Broadcasting Council led TV broadcasters to amply prioritize budget cuts at the cost of quality, aimed at increased viewership.

As the director and theoretician of culture and cinema, Diamantis Leventakos explains in the collective work “Television and Greek society”, “the myth of free, private television, has been the Trojan horse for the occupation of the broadcasting sector by big capital”.

Greek routine involves telly

Indeed, in that arena of intertwined interests of politicians and businessmen, TV viewers became accustomed to Greek produced drama series and perpetual soap operas, in harmless and easy going talk-shows which promoted politicians, as well as invasive journalism, with the assistance of hidden cameras and a surplus of sensationalism.

However, television is not the worst of all evils. While Marshal MacLuhan’s famous phrase of 1964, “the medium is the message” was still a hype in Greek Journalism and Media Schools the first decade of 2000 (the delayed development of mass media in Greece could be an explanation), television was not perceived in a deterministic way neither by its viewers, nor by Greek theoreticians. All would agree they want a better TV, and by that one would not mean just bigger.

Having spent long hours in front of television, Greeks would call it “hazokouti” (“stupid box”) while at the same moment, they would proclaim something to be true simply “because it was said on TV”. In the midst of these recession years they feel nostalgic of the carefree shows and series they used to watch in the ‘90s.

When it came to the sudden and authoritarian shut-down of the public broadcaster ERT by the Greek government in June 2012, Greeks objected massively, regardless the fact that ERT was among the channels with the lowest viewership. However, this is a whole new story –or it is another chapter of the manipulation of mass media in Greece.

[1] In his book “Political Economy of Mass Media”, 2000

Greek TV Stations microphones. Photo: Panayiotis Tzamaros

What Would You Like to Know About Press Freedom and Media Pluralism in Greece?

We’d like to answer your questions, because they are vital for the quality of our democracy.

During summer, we were contacted by the colleagues at OBCT, about a project concerning media pluralism and the state of press freedom in Greece. It’s an international project with many countries in Europe and the Balkans initiated under the umbrella of the European centre for Press and Media Freedom.

Initially we were honoured to be part of this project, but soon after we started thinking about how we would approach it. The invitation by OBCT made a very clear point and, furthermore, it raised a question: while in our country anyone can publish anything they want, is there true press freedom? And what about media pluralism?

The newly re-elected left Greek government of SYRIZA and some of it’s prominent members have often stated that they will oppose corruption within Greece — starting with the media owners who are often referred to as “the modern oligarchs of Greece”. After July’s referendum, where the mainstream media launched an organized campaign in favor of the YES vote, the demand for reform in the Greek media is more demanded and topical than ever. But will the SYRIZA-led government reform the media landscape as they promised?

One and a half years ago, we launched a crowdfunding campaign that outlined the disastrous state the Greek press is in and why new, independent media outlets are needed. We explained how Greek journalism is riding an uncertain wave with no disruption to business models, and fading public trust in media organisations.

Just in the first nine months of 2017, online advertising dropped by 18% over the corresponding 2016 period, with sites absorbing about 44 million euros this year. The fall is due to the closure of large websites and organisations such as DOL, Pegasus and Mega, along with small media businesses.

But in Greece the problem is not only about revenue streams. Media all over the world are facing huge sustainability problems. It’s also about the quality of the media and the produced content and the quality of journalism in extend. In May I was writing about the state of Press Freedom in Greece and why we need it more urgently.

Five (simple) reasons why Greece urgently needs more #PressFreedom

So what’s next?

When we decided we will undertake the challenge to talk about Press Freedom and Media Pluralism we contacted several experienced colleagues who were reporting on the state of the Greek media. However, we received mostly negative answers. It became apparent that the problem was that none of them wanted to write with their name on our publication because of this very delicate issue. Even talking about the country’s media landscape is considered a taboo within journalistic circles. And of course you are blacklisted. That’s why we are going to report on media freedom and pluralism on our own means and resources.

The topics we will try to touch upon are as follows:

  • Private television in Greece. How the dull dawn of private TV in Greece explain its decay and how freedom, objectivity, and quality of television in Greece was determined by the way it was commercialised.
  • The limits of press freedom. How LGBT activists were fiercely targeted by far-right publications.
  • Journalists working conditions and how do they affect press freedom.
  • Local press around Greece and it’s contribution to media pluralism and press freedom.
  • The boom of some new but traditional media. While print is dying, 6 new daily newspapers popped up in a deserted media landscape. What does this mean?
  • Thessaloniki, the second biggest city in Greece, recently lost it’s two main daily newspapers due to financial issues. How do it’s residents get their local news?
  • Greek legacy media are maintaining a weird tradition: the so-called “image theft tradition”.
  • We will try to find out why and how football hooligans attack journalists
  • Non-profit journalism is unknown to the Greek public. Why is that and why is it confused with citizen journalism?

Please let us know what you’d like to read about Greece’s media. If you are a media worker in Greece and you have something to tell towards an international audience please, let us know. If you have questions about the way Greek media work email us.

Even though we are a tiny, independent news organisation and our resources are limited we will try our best to give you the bigger picture of the state of media freedom and media pluralism in Greece, the troubled history of corruption, lawlessness, and censorship in Greece’s media landscape, which has been worsening and becoming more dystopian in recent years, in the midst of Greece’s severe economic and political crisis. And last but not least, we will try to report about how it feels to be an independent journalist in Greece. Because that’s the story that includes all the above.

This publication has been produced within the partnership with Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso for the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF), co-funded by the European Commission. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of media partner AthensLive and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union.

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