Press freedom in 'post-democracy': Greece

No one would disagree on the importance of press freedom and freedom of expression. But it is utterly naïve to disconnect press freedom from the notion of media power.

Lia-Paschalia Spyridou
8 July 2016

Flickr/PIAZZA del POPOLO. Some rights reserved.

According to a survey published in April 2016 in Greece, nearly one out of every two respondents (47%) agrees with the statement that “we have democracy on paper but not in practice”. 45% of the respondents claim that “participation in the elections is meaningless because at the end the foreigners decide”. Interestingly enough this survey was conducted on behalf of Kathimerini, a newspaper that is part of the SKAI Media Group, one of the major media groups in the country.

Ten months ago, SKAI’s outlets, along with many established media in Greece, set aside their adherence to the professional role of the detached observer to openly advocate a ‘yes’ position in the referendum held to decide whether to accept or reject the bailout conditions proposed by the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank together with the harsh austerity measures this proposal entailed. Despite many mainstream media campaigns and international political pressure in favor of the ‘yes’ position, a clear majority of 61% of Greek voters supported the ‘no’ position.

Massive complaints about the media’s ‘yes’ vote propaganda campaign led to an investigation by the Disciplinary Board of the Journalists’ Union of Athens. A couple of weeks ago, the Board announced the results of its investigation. Because of evidence showing pre-referendum reporting, nine journalists were found to have violated the journalistic code of ethics and practice. The Board decided to expel three journalists for one year and to reprimand another six. It tried to protect its regulatory role but kept its sanctioning power to a minimum. The decision however was received with great frustration and anger by legacy media with arguments that it “prosecutes ideology and freedom of expression in Greece”.

No one would disagree about the importance of press freedom and freedom of expression. But it is utterly naïve to disconnect press freedom from the notion of media power. As Natalie Fenton rightly states, “once media power is taken into consideration then a critique of freedom takes on a rather different mantle from the crude assumption that we all begin from a level playing field and everyone approaches access to freedom from the same vantage point”. Legacy media in Greece have systematically been used as tools of political influence in exchange for favouritism in the form of state advertising, bidding for state contracts and preservation of privileges, such as tax breaks for shipping. It comes as no surprise therefore that the austerity dogma and the “there is no alternative” discourse was overtly supported and legitimised by mainstream media. But freedom of the press is not about supporting the views and ideas of those in power. Freedom of the press is not about lies, distortion, misrepresentation and half-truths that obscure reality. Freedom of the press is about criticism and opposition, monitoring and unwanted interference. Freedom of the press is talking about the most important issues of the day – those that affect people’s lives and their future.

Colin Crouch has referred to Greece’s austerity package as the most explicit expression of post-democracy. Many voices inside and outside Greece have highlighted the significant flaws in the remedies imposed. As shown in the following table, the figures are ruthless; after three memoranda all economic indicators have worsened.

Sources: Giokas, D. (2016) The Truth about the Memoranda and Greek Statistics Service (2016)   

In April 2016, Poul Thomsen, the IMF official for the Greek programme, argued in favour of lower surplus targets. He claimed that Athens should not further reduce discretionary government spending which is already among the lowest in Europe: “as a result hospitals are complaining they don't have syringes and buses are not driving because they don't have spare parts".

Notwithstanding the eternal conflict of Greece’s international creditors (related to debt relief), Thomsen implicitly admitted the damaging effects of the bailout mechanisms on fundamental social structures. Of course this is no news nor is it the first time that the IMF has admitted the damaging effects of too much austerity.

So the big question is: are the policies implemented in Greece the right ones?

After six years of economic, political and social turmoil and the infamous ‘Grexit’ still on the agenda, the legitimacy of the programmes imposed is a huge question troubling all Greeks. Citizens are frustrated and cynical and have lost faith in institutions, especially political parties and the media. But the media in Greece were never bothered with how policies affect people or how the toxic deals of Greece with its creditors undermine democracy and fundamental human rights. So now the media are mourning press freedom and claim that their voices are being silenced, while all they are interested in is to have freedom to manufacture consent for a neoliberal vision of the crisis.

The relationship between media and democracy is well-known: the media plays a pivotal role in the formation of an informed citizenry able to comprehend, analyze and act upon important issues concerning both the private and public domain. At times of crises, people depend on the media to a greater extent as first-hand experience proves inadequate. Therefore, the media can become exceptionally influential as a source of information and judgment for the public. Also in case the legitimacy of economic policy is questioned, favourable media coverage can be used as an approval tool on the policies pursued. In countries like Greece that undergo a severely poor and prolonged financial situation, news reporting of the crisis may have a direct performative impact not only on policy choices but also on societal reaction.

For six years Greek people have been bombarded with contradictory, de-contextualized, and elite-sourced reporting of the crisis, that has not only undermined people’s right to information but contributed to increased cynicism and mistrust towards institutions. This has triggered a tremendous sense of helplessness which has a hugely detrimental effect on the democratic process. Rather than facilitating engagement and participation at a very critical time, the media have sidelined all important questions, facts, and culprits. When #thisisacoup became the most trending hashtag on Twitter ten months ago, established media in Greece resorted to the all-time-classic recipe: scaremongering and trivial news. “Grexit” and the printed shirt Yanis Varoufakis wore at the Parliament. So whose freedom are we talking about?


Part of the Anti-Austerity and Media Activism series.

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