A cross-section of Greek newspaper. Flickr/Hindrik Sijens. Some rights reserved.Any explanation of the modern-day Greek tragedy is incomplete without mention of the country's news media. The fourth power is in dire straits, having seen a 50-place-drop in the annual World Press Freedom Index. It is now in 99th place, with only Bulgaria lower among EU members.
The current ranking was attributed to excessive police violence against journalists, the shutting down of national broadcaster ERT, as well as the decrease in spending due to the economic crisis. In reality, the news media's decline was more gradual, but wasn't noticed from the start.
The entrepreneurial deficit
Similar to most western countries, Greece's major news outlets are owned by some of the richest and most powerful individuals. The vast difference in information quality can largely be attributed to the ties between press and state. "The press in this country is not in the 'information market' but in the ‘political influence market’", says Paschos Mandravelis, a leading journalist with national daily Kathimerini.
Mandravelis brands this as the 'entrepreneurial deficit' of the media. “Because of the heavy - seen or unseen - state subsidies, newspapers and TV channels had no reason to maximize their readership and profit.” Successive Greek governments - particularly before the crisis - invented creative methods to place adverts in newspapers and TV channels, securing alliances and promoting interests and kin. The sums paid have often been excessive and unrelated to the papers' circulation.
Laws are still in place which indirectly fund the media. An example is that of provincial newspapers: "It's an open secret that their financial survival relies on paid announcements and proclamations by local officials. This relationship removes potential for objective criticism."
The state is the single biggest spender in the media industry. “As the media's main client, the state is also a major factor in editorial decisions”, says Mandravelis. Each government exercises leverage on the media, who benefit more from pleasing those in power than they would from creating a journalistic product of better quality. Journalists are frequently not hired and promoted based on professional merit, but rather on successfully following editorial instructions.
No example paints this picture more clearly than the way the Greek press missed the 'news of the century', as Mandravelis calls it: the country's imminent bankruptcy before 2010. Beside isolated voices pointing out the country's troubles, nothing in the mainstream media was indicative of the dire situation the country was in and what was to follow. This happened in spite of individual warnings by former ministers and even a former prime minister, which never made it to the headlines.
Although most problems are related to broader and complex issues of power, money and politics, archaic or illiberal media laws still exist. In 2013, during demonstrations against the shutting down of national broadcaster ERT, Mandravelis became the subject of disciplinary action by the Union of Editors of Daily Newspapers (ESIEA) for having criticized the workers union's demands. According to the Board's decision, it wasn't the content of his criticism that led to his 3-month suspension from ESIEA, but "the timing that he chose, attempting to undermine ESIEA's demonstrations and his colleagues' struggle".
This way, an opinion piece became the subject of disciplinary action by the very body that should be advancing press freedom in the country. The unfortunate conclusion is that journalistic unions, such as ESIEA, are rarely interested in advancing freedom of speech and the public's right to information. Instead, they are indicative of how unappreciative of press freedom the field of journalism in the country is.
Syriza and press freedom
Syriza's attitude towards the press makes for an interesting analysis. Elected with a mandate to re-negotiate Greece's debt deal, the country's 'first leftist government' has steadily asked for a united national front vis-à-vis the country's creditors. To that end, party officials have frequently brushed off criticism from the media as unpatriotic and alarmist.
A u-turn in tone in favour of Syriza was obvious in many news outlets before the government was even sworn in. The country's mainstream press has by and large adopted the government's main line of argumentation about the re-negotiation of the bail-out deal. Naturally, some outlets are more sympathetic to the government than others. This depends on their traditional political allegiances, but also on a power play between newspapers and TV channels versus the new government.
Mandravelis says the media's unquestioning stance was to be expected: “They are always cosy with whoever is in government. But the mentality that everyone needs to align themselves behind a national front is threatening to democracy itself and is an element found in totalitarian-type regimes.” Asked, however, if he thinks that Syriza enjoys exceptional treatment by the media, he replies that the party is simply enjoying a grace period just like any new government.
The 'Truth Committee', short for a new, impromptu parliamentary committee charged with investigating the origins and legality of the Greek debt, provides a good example of Syriza's attitude towards the press. The first convention of the Truth Committee, inspired and headed by Zoe Konstantopoulou, Speaker of the Parliament and Syriza MP, was the subject of controversy: the leaders of the opposition parties claimed they were not invited to attend the opening proceedings nor asked about the composition and aims of the Committee. A short promotional clip, which featured Konstantopoulou, was branded as partisan and unparliamentary. The clip ends with the words "check it, delete it", a reference to the alleged "odious debt" Greece should not, according to some Syriza officials, have to repay.
Konstantopoulou was quick to brush off criticism in a press conference, claiming that parliamentary correspondents who did not cover the proceedings but instead criticized them, were not doing their job right: "Whoever wants to align themselves with us is welcome. But I will oppose those who wish to defame us, cover up the truth and misinform". Similar warnings have been issued by other Syriza officials, who have been classifying journalistic work and questions as acceptable or unacceptable. Journalists who ask the latter are treated as suspects of having an agenda, one that is anti-Syriza, therefore unpatriotic in these crucial circumstances.
In a move that sparked domestic and international outrage in June 2013, ERT, the state-owned national broadcaster, was shut down through a common ministerial decision of the conservative New Democracy government, sidestepping parliament and prior discourse. Within hours, all ERT transmitters showed a black screen with the words 'No Signal'. This sudden closing of ERT was supposed to pave the way for the establishment of a new, healthier broadcaster, which would in its short lifetime come to be known as NERIT.
The move reignited the debate about the pros and cons of a state-owned broadcaster. Mandravelis thinks it's a necessity: “Especially in television, bad content drowns out good content. There should be a public broadcaster, which has functions similar to those of education. Any society that wishes to progress needs a system of education; it also requires the state to provide such education through television programmes.” Criticism of ERT was rarely focused on the shows it broadcast. Instead, it was based on the lack of independence of its journalistic work, as well as on the selection criteria and salaries of its executives and staff.
Two years later, one of Syriza's first acts in government was the re-establishment of ERT. Even though the bill is still under parliamentary debate, government ministers have already invited those fired to return to their jobs. Worryingly, the bill does not seem to increase the broadcaster's independence. The members of its board, for instance, are selected by the parliamentary majority. The reopening of ERT is expected to be signed into law within the next weeks.
Before Syriza became government, the party consistently criticized mainstream TV channels for their lack of independence, for belonging to all-powerful oligarchs and for advancing capitalist and elitist ideas. One of their pledges was to finally regulate TV licenses. Private TV stations have been broadcasting their signal using the public airwaves under 'temporary' licenses for more than two decades. A de facto situation of quasi legality has therefore developed, but one that never explicitly ceased to be temporary.
In the list of proposed reforms sent by the Greek government on March 27th, the final auctioning off of those licenses was estimated at €350 million. The government also notified the union of national TV stations that it claims another €24.15 million is due for the years 2011-2014. In response, the union claimed that this debt is offset by a conveniently estimated €24.17 million owed to the TV corporations by the state. The outcome of this conflict remains to be seen. However, €350 million seems like an ambitious aim, given that most TV stations are already heavily indebted and report low revenues or losses.
Overall, the country's news media are variously problematic, owing to both the state and the journalists themselves. Sadly, the relationship finds itself in a dangerous equilibrium: The state does not want a fourth power investigating it and the major players in the media do not want to sell information, but prefer to buy influence instead.