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Media and democracy

01 February 2016 / 00:02:48  GRReporter
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Almost 30 years after the advent of private radio (1987) and television (1989), the Greek political class has yet to get accustomed to that which exists throughout the democratic world. Namely, the existence of media companies that operate independently of political parties and politicians. This is what Dimitris Psichoyos claims in his analysis, published in To Vima.

It was a simple situation by the end of the 1980s: each party had newspapers, which supported it; the state broadcasters were under the thumb of the party in power – just like the whole country. Then the notorious 'Koskotas' scandal took place: the second attempt of Andreas Papandreou to obtain a thoroughly controlled media group through the rascal Giorgos Koskotas. He was chucking newspapers, channels and magazines in his shopping trolley with money stolen from the Bank of Crete. From so much stolen money, $2 million found its way into the account of a then deputy prime minister, Menios Koutsoyorgas, who died of embolism in the court where they had brought him.

The Koskotas controversy was the reason why in 1987-1988 Papandreou broke ranks with publishers Christos Lambrakis, Georgios Bobolas and Kitsos Tegopoulos. A couple of years later, the traditional links of Kathimerini with New Democracy were also severed because of the conflict between Aristidis Alafouzis and Konstantinos Mitsotakis, the visible reason being the refusal of the then prime minister to allow the creation of SKAI television. Meanwhile, in 1989 the parliamentary majority of New Democracy and Synaspismos legalised private radio and television channels. Only two licences for national coverage channels were dished out, with all current publishers of Athenian newspapers participating as partners.

But chaos set in: anyone who managed to do so, created a radio and/or a television station, and if they had the political support of New Democracy, which ruled in 1990-1993, or of PASOK, which inherited it, they got national coverage. The situation was legalized in 1995 with the 'Venizelos' law, which was supposed to rain in the broadcasting shambles. But in practical terms, it was designed to perpetuate the political control over the media.

The philosophy of the law embraced by all parties was simple: the media constitute a peril to democracy. With their strong influence on public opinion, they pressurise politicians to grant public procurement contracts to certain individuals. Because, as is well known, the Greek politicians are not corrupt, but every time they are threatened by disclosures capable of destroying their political careers, they back down only for the sake of being able to continue offering their selfless and valuable services to the motherland. This is the famous 'theory of tangled relationships', which led to the 'majority shareholder' law and practically prohibited any cooperation of the media with private business, because otherwise a businessman could have no access to government projects.

In the period 1995-2005, I repeated over and over again that the fragmentation of broadcasting and the refusal to hand out licences was serving the interests of parties and politicians who want to have weak media in front of them. No European country has as many channels, the advertising market is incapable of sustaining them, therefore it is impossible to build up strong, high-quality media. And the failure to issue licences puts channels under the threat of their frequencies being tendered out, which is materialising at the moment.

I was a member of the Radio and Television Council in 2000, when we had to discuss the demands of channels of licences for national coverage. The legal department informed us that they couldn't even discuss the applications because none of them were consistent with the requirements of the press ministry. The Karamanlis' government relaunched the tender for licences, but again none were given: the political class strives to hold the radio and television under its thumb – and the 1952 constitution allows it to do so. This is the only constitution of a democratic country, which stipulates that "the radio and television are under the direct control of the state." And this provision outlived the four post-war amendments of the constitution; in 2001, direct control was simply commissioned to the Radio and Television Council.

Today, the government quotes the same arguments – for the opposite reason: it wants to tie down or to close the existing media, which are considered to be strong, and create new ones, along the lines of Andreas Papandreou from the times of Koskotas.

Initially, the political control over television was fortified by the provision that every minister responsible for the press shall decide how many licences might be handed out, of what kind and at what prices. The need to keep the broadcasting licences in place stems from the shortage of frequencies. But digital technology has dealt away with this constraint: we are living in an age of abundance, thousands of stations can coexist: terrestrial, satellite, internet, webtv or iptv.

But here we are forging laws against technology. He who wants to create a channel will need to turn to the minister and have him persuaded to call a tender – with arguments about the nature of which we can all have a few easy guesses. The current minister responsible for the media, Nikos Pappas, has for the first time given parliament the right to decide. And parliament will again be played for a fool, as happened with the constitutional provision for the "majority shareholder", which was repealed by a simple letter by a lowly EU official. And no politician feels embarrassed that we still keep it in the constitution.

Tags: Dimitris Psihoyos analysis media political control licenses
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