One way to get rid of a tiresome free press is to instigate a great big purge following a (conveniently incompetent) failed coup. Another, perhaps less dramatic way, is to shut down media outlets that the government dislikes under some pretext, like broadcast licencing. While Turkey went for option a, Greece, having a less ambitious (or perhaps competent) leadership group is going for option b. Greece indeed has a unique ability to take international standards and mutate them onto 1960s style farcical episodes in political manipulation. The latest example of modernisation through a somersault back through history is the saga of TV licences.
Greece’s radio and TV broadcasting domain was never under secure legal footing, since non-state controlled media started springing up. The first ones were city run radio stations (by non-administration aligned local governments in 1987). These were followed by the land re-transmission of international satellite channels. Nationwide private channels launched in 1989 after the law was changed to allow their operation. There was never a public auction of broadcast licences and pretty much everyone in the early 1990s attempted to launch a TV channel at least on a local level. Most only broadcast back then (and even now) very old National Geographic documentaries, leading to my long held aversion to penguins.
Syriza, in its Stalinist fervor to ‘clean’ up the ‘systemic’ ‘corrupt’ ‘oligarchic’ media, that also happen not to support it, commissioned a ‘study’ from the University of Florence that decided exactly what the commissioner wanted to hear. That the Greek media market could only support 4 nationwide TV channels on top of the (lots of) ERT-run state ones that no-one of course watches. I do have to admit though that we watched quite a few (bad) French movies on ERT2 over our holiday. Now, one would say that what the market can hold is determined by the market itself, not the government. One could also say that private TV stations are businesses, if their creditors want to pull the plug they can do so. It is not up to the government to decide their financial viability. One also has not met “Propagandaminister” Pappas.
Mr Pappas engineered the organisation of an auction for these 4 licences which will reduce the number of national private television stations from seven to four. Existing broadcasters who don’t win a license are required to go off the air within three months, the government has said. The government is running itself the auction, despite the constitutionally mandated role of an independent (currently defunct) National Broadcasting Commission in such matters. But the constitutionality of the auction is not the only problem. The way in which the auction is conducted is farcical. One is used to closed bids in these types of processes and to strict confidentiality. After all the idea is to maximise revenue for the state. While however the bids are normally submitted through a process of sealed envelopes or online in a staged process, the Greek auction is taking place by locking up under police guard in a disused government building the media executives bidding for licences and their entire support staff for days! As the Washington Post reports, gathered in a government building in the Greek capital, executives from eight companies started the auction early Tuesday, with offers beginning at €3 million ($3,341,250) and increasing in increments of €500,000.
Apart from this being very funny to watch for a government with a deep hatred of ‘non-party’ media and journalists, it is highly irregular. The whole process in fact reeks of illegality and is almost certain to be demolished in court actions. While the 60 hour show was going on, the doors of the building were plastered with interim injunctions requested by the participants in the process against each other, and everyone outside against the government and the participants in various combinations. The Conseil d’Etat is also in the process of deciding on a challenge to the constitutionality of the process.
Lets summarise what is wrong with this. First of all, who gets national broadcast licences cannot be determined by the government in a democratic state (especially one as political, vindictive and disrespectful of the free press as this one). Secondly, the constitution requires that a process is followed, and the government itself says that additional thematic and regional licences will be determined by a different process involving the independent regulator. So why not this auction? You will find not a single lawyer who agrees with the process. It is simply unconstitutional for government to decide the number of licences. Thirdly, no opposition party agrees with this process. The chief opposition says they will repeal the law and the auction as soon as they come into power. Fourth, none of the participants agree with the process, and all have complained in courts already trying to block it. Fifth, technology and market reality has nothing to do with the 4 licences limit. Sixth, the only criterion being the money offered is nonsensical for a public tender process on broadcast media. If money is the only thing that matters porn channels could get all 4 licences. That would be fun, but not necessarily in the public interest. Seventh, all participants are on an equal footing, new entrants to the media field alongside those with 27 years of investment and experience. This cannot be right, especially when the plan is to shutter the stations that fail to obtain a licence at the cost of hundreds of jobs, never mind the irreversible blow to freedom of the press.
I was opposed to the move of Samaras to close ERT in 2013 in a show of force and commitment to austerity policies. I had said at the time that black screens in the place of stations people grew up with is not a hallmark of a democratic state. Imagine the opposite situation created by Syriza now, black screens in the place of the private channels who sprung up in 1989 to defend and establish a free press. I am sorry to say that 2016 is way worse than 2013 both in terms of symbolism and in content. After all, we never watched ERT, while we all watch SKAI, MEGA and the rest of them.