The Underreported Crisis of Independent Journalism in Greece: New Study



newspapers

A new report by the Open Society Initiative for Europe finds that independent journalism and media in Greece face a serious crisis. Read below the summary of the “Media Policy and Independent Journalism in Greece” report conducted by Dimitris Boucas & Petros Iosifidis, followed by their extensive report.

Greece is, today, the European Union (EU) member state where journalism and the media face their most acute crisis. Since the 1980s and 1990s, deregulation has allowed the market entry of commercial channels that has increased the viewing choices for audiences in Greece. At the same time, the legal and regulatory framework actively promoted the concentration of press, television, and radio outlets owned by large organizations, which co-existed alongside the public broadcaster, the Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation (Ellinikí Radiofonía Tileórasi, ERT).

In other respects regulation has been ineffective; private channels operate with temporary licenses and independent regulatory authorities function superficially and ambivalently. As a result, the market has been dominated by a handful of powerful newspaper interests which have expanded into audiovisual and online media. Recent laws have further liberalized media ownership and cross-ownership.

Historically, the Greek state has intervened in all aspects of economic and social life, including the media fi eld. It has acted as censor (during the 1967–1974 dictatorship), owner (of public television and radio), and subsidizer of newspapers and electronic media. The intertwining of the political elite and the media has generated a journalistic culture cautious of reporting news that state officials could find challenging.

With media market deregulation, clientelism has gradually become more invasive and more intricate, linking large media organizations, their owners (who are also active in key sectors of the economy including public projects), and the political elite. These arrangements have damaged journalism, as state and private interests have steered editorial choices. The financial crisis and the austerity measures imposed since 2010 have served to strengthen these relationships.

The major mainstream media organizations have largely presented government austerity policies favorably, at the expense of pluralism and independent journalism, and despite the increasing hardship suffered by the middle and lower classes. At the more extreme end, major commercial media companies have kept silent about a number of sensitive developments, including the imposition of legislation to cut employee rights and pensions.

The abrupt closure of the public broadcaster ERT in 2013 further damaged pluralism in Greek journalism, since ERT was the only broadcaster—in a market dominated by unlicensed commercial channels—with a legal obligation to provide objective, unbiased news. Despite its shortcomings, 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, New Hellenic Radio, Internet, and Television (Nea Ellinikí Radiofonía, Internet kai Tileórasi, NERIT), with a smaller budget and roughly 500 employees, has been 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 in Greece. In the recent auction for the allocation of digital frequencies, Digea was the only candidate and can now take decisions on issues such as the digital compression format, the digital frequencies to be used, and the areas where it would start simulcasting. Digea controls the digital terrain and its monopoly raises concerns about pluralism and independent journalism, as the visibility of anti-austerity opinion on its frequencies is expected to be limited.

The financial crisis together with the tough fiscal measures, including heavy reductions in salaries and pensions and numerous layoffs in the public sector, have accelerated the downward trend in newspaper circulation and led to the closure of several outlets. Reduced income from advertising and other sources of funding has had an impact on employment, especially in the print sector: redundancies and the abandonment of collective agreements have forced many journalists to accept vulnerable low-status work conditions with very low salaries. Under strict editorial control of critical views of government policies and the intricate system of political/economic/media dependencies, the practice of journalists’ self-censorship to safeguard their jobs is on the rise.

Under these pressures, 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. But these initiatives cannot help the independent journalists who find themselves on the receiving end of accusations of defamation, of lawsuits that carry a heavy financial penalty, of blackmail and threats against their lives and those of their families, of intimidation and violence at police hands during demonstrations.

The internet has become increasingly prominent in the media landscape, offering the potential for greater pluralism and independence, yet it has also been implicated in low-quality output, gossip, copy-and-paste news, and dependence on big firm advertisements.

The media situation is bleak, though it may improve following the victory of the Coalition of the Radical Left (Synaspismós Rizospastikís Aristéras, SYRIZA) in the 25 January 2015 general election. The new SYRIZA-led government has pledged to “destroy” the oligarchic system in Greece where news organizations are subsidiaries of companies owned by a few wealthy entrepreneurs. In accordance with pre-election pledges, in late April 2015 the new government passed through the Greek parliament a bill to re-open ERT on a new basis. It also declared that all licenses to private channels would need to be replaced by permanent licenses after competition and on the basis of sound economic criteria. In addition, it expressed its intention to challenge the allocation of digital TV frequencies to Digea. Moreover, a post-austerity agenda—if it emerges after the ongoing negotiations with the EU, the European Central Bank (ECB), and the International Monetary Fund (IMF)—could help to improve employment conditions for journalists. Whether or not the new government will be able to dismantle the old power structures remains to be seen.

Self-organization in media production and the quest for new sustainable business models will become more and more important. Greater mobilization by civil society, involving trade unions and universities among others, is needed to promote pluralism, transparency, and objective journalism.

This study identifies the most urgent problems facing media policy in Greece and how they affect independent journalism. These problems are prioritized by their relationship to European-level policy activity and to OSF concerns. The study is 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.

Today, Greece is the European Union member state where journalism and the media face their most acute crisis. This study identifies the urgent problems facing media policy in Greece and how they affect independent journalism.

Media Policy and Independent Journalism in Greece, based partly on in-depth interviews with key actors, explores these issues and more in the following six-chapter report.

Read the full study finding in the report below: