In 2014 Greece was ranked 99th in the annual “Press Freedom Index” ranking of “Reporters Without Borders” - behind Zambia, Malawi, Kyrgystan, among others. Just a year earlier Greece was ranked 84. The press freedom index is a measure of the sense of freedom of local journalists in the researched countries. In the same ranking Bulgaria is one place behind Greece - № 100.
Since 2009 Greece marked the biggest drop among all participants in the annual ranking of Freedom House (measuring the press freedom). In 2013 newspapers in Greece were declared “partially free” by the organization. In 2014 Greece was ranked 92nd – behind all other EU counties and behind Mozambique, Burkina Faso and Botswana, among others.
Seemingly this is a recent drop. Some foreign media pronounced it a consequence of the economical crisis that was ravaging the country since 2009. However this article would illustrate the thesis that the media collapse stems from decades of intentional undermining and forced replacement of the freedom of speech – a liberty that was often traded even in democracies. Hereby we are aiming at displaying the fatal decade-long ties of oligarchs, politicians and uncritical media in the governance of the country.
It is a common saying in Greece that in their negotiations with politicians Greek oligarchs do threat to “set up a media” if they do not receive what they want. An embodiment of the tight connection between those two groups is the “Avriani” newspaper. It geared up in the end of the 70s and reached full prominence in the beginning of the 80s when Andreas Papandreou and his socialistic movement PASOK won the elections. “Avriani” backed up Papandreou and quickly became the newspaper with the biggest circulation. Its pages were largely covered by tabloid journalism and cliquism. For Greeks this was a completely new phenomena and they called it “avrianism”.
The newspaper was not reluctant to sully all opponents of Papandreou – in and out of PASOK, including, for instance, culture activists differing in their views with Papandreou. Gradually it turned into a branch of PASOK and Papandreou. The founder of “Avriani” – Jorgos Curis became one of the most influential media owners in the country. His brother Mihalis Curis was elected as a member of parliament in the end of the 80s. “Avriani” shut down in 2012 but the “avrianism” was already spreaded around.
In the peak of its fame in the middle of the 80s “Avriani” was selling significant numbers - quarter million copies in 10 million country. Based on that after the local elections in 1986 the opposition party “New Democracy” started a new type of media in their struggle for power. The first private radio stations emerged – “Radio Halkida”, “Athens 9.84”, “FM 100” based in Thessaloniki and “Channel 1” from Pirea. All of those cities had just elected conservative mayors. Those private radios were created and existed as partisan media. They were meant to terminate PASOK supremacy in power as well as its media monopoly – facilitated through the national TV – ERT. Two major consequences stemmed form these processes. First of all, the state never ever established a legal framework that would regulate all radio frequencies. Radio stations were granted temporary permissions whilst licenses were largely disputed and subjected to political struggles that would escalate in 2001.
Secondly – PASOK hit back. In 1987 oligarchs close to Papandreu started new TV stations. One morning Athens woke up with the fully equipped studios of MEGA TV and other new stations. Greece neither imposed any regulations upon them nor made them compete on a market-based principle for their frequencies. Today they still keep on working with temporary permissions. A unity of six TV stations hold up to 90% market share.
The lack of legal framework is disturbing the media hygiene. In 2001 Athens’ landscape was congested by dozens of radio transmitters placed on the Lykavittos hill. There came a night when the authorities decided to shut down 66 stations. On 27 March the police forces stormed the hill and took control of the transmitters, guarded with pathos by journalists. 20 stations were left which, needless to say, were almost completely owned by oligarchs. As a result there were less formats, more unified views and a number of the critical journalists left their jobs. Meanwhile in 2007 Greece legalized the de facto existing status quo where a single person can own more than one media. However there was still no legal framework regulating non-profit media as in a number of states in Europe and Northern America.
The consolidation of media and the domination of the TV stations in the Greek society was perfectly depicted in the face of Adonis Georgiadis. In his previous life he was a TV seller in a TV show – passionately praising his stuff – from a multi-volume history of Greece to anti-Zionism encyclopedia advertised as “unique 18 volumes in a magnificent dark-blue color with a nice golden edging”. In his new life he became famous as the Health minister with fascist ideas who was strongly advocating for the suspension of emergency medical care for foreigners.
The more the oligarchs took over the media the more the rebellious by nature Greeks started to seek alternative sources of information. Although that even nowadays Greece is almost at the bottom of the ranking for highest Internet access – 36% from the Greeks do not have an access to the network, a bunch of websites and blogs emerged. More and more Greeks are avoiding traditional sources of information and that tendency is well-balanced by the attempts of the oligarchs to seek ways for interrupting unwanted information. On 19 July 2010 a few masked assassinators shot down the journalist Sokratis Giolias in front of his home. He used to be director of the news section of “Thema 98.9” radio station. Secretly he was also the founder of the website “Troktito” (Mole). Through the site he was exposing the current political establishment. By the time he was killed with 16 bullets, his blog was the fourth most visited webpage in Greece. The terrifying fact in his case is that the killers got him even though the public was not aware he was actually the “mole”.
His anonymity was possible due to the fact that blogs are not required to be registered by a person or a company. Because of “Troktito” and other blogs the government of “New Democracy” proposed a bill in 2008 that was aimed at destroying alternative media. The former Interior minister Mihalis Hrisohoidis wanted blogs to register and obtain a license. Unlike blogs TV and radio stations then and still today were not subject of permanent licenses. Hrisohoidis’ proposal was reintroduced in 2010 by PASOK. Most recently his ideas were introduced in Putin’s Russia and proposed in Orban’s Hungary.
Censorship in Greek media is growing alongside with the economical downfall of the country. In November 2012 Greece was at the verge of an uncontrolled bankruptcy. The country had a record high unemployment rate and a vast financial gap. In that time the investigative journalist Kostas Vaxevanis published the so called “Lagarde list” – the names of 2000 Greeks with bank accounts in Switzerland. More names were subsequently revealed by the former French Financial minister – Christine Lagarde, to her Greek colleague. His (the Greek minister) task was to verify if the people on the list are not tax dodgers in Greece. Among the names revealed were relatives of the former prime-minister Yorgos Papandreu, of the Financial minister and others. The list was hidden for two years and no investigation was initiated despite that the country was in a poor condition. When Kostas Vaxevanis published the names in 2012 he was arrested and charged with violation of the right of secrecy of the investors. Vaxevanis was one of the most popular investigative journalists in the country. His arrest and the consequent trial were a direct blow on his current or future cooperatives.
Bad luck never comes alone. Journalist Spiros Karatzaferis was arrested that same month. He was just about to reveal information that leaked in “Wikileaks”. According to that information economical stats concerning the financial state of Greece were pinchbeck with the sole purpose to introduce the World Monetary Fund to the country. Journalists Giorgos Papachristou and Despina Kokkaraki were also arrested in 2013 based on filed actions for insult against them by politicians.
It seems there is a consensus in the Greek media world that those who are most powerful are the ones who would judge, threaten or even kill. That is why it was no surprise when in February 2014 politician Teodoros Kacanevas submitted a claim worth 200 000 Euros against an administrator of the Greek “Wikipedia” asking also for his imprisonment for one year. Kacanevas is the founder of the “Drachma” party and son-in-law of Andreas Papandreu, according to Wikipedia. In the Wikipedia page dedicated to Kacanevas it is also written that the founder of PASOK Andreas Papandreu called Kacanevas “disgrace” for his family and party. What was a true surprise is the fact that Kacanevas got to find out the name of the administrator. It was supposed to be secret like in the case of “the mole” Sokratis Giolias.
After Greek politicians and oligarchs successfully silenced the inconvenient ones they had to add one more thing – in the end of 2012 a request was made for the national TV - ERT, to stop broadcasting “Euronews”. ERT was among the founding members of the Pan – European news channel. In 2012 “Euronews” started broadcasting in Greek. Officially Athens claimed that the contract between ERT and “Euronews” was unlawful. A further explanation and definition of the term “unlawful” was never given which is particularly peculiar having in mind that there is not a single “lawful” media in the country. Unofficially, the greatest fear of the establishment was a media that was not under its guidance.
The struggle between ERT and the authorities was short but epic. On 11 June 2013 the government spokesperson Simos Kedikoglou declared that the national TV would shut down. Immediately! The reason – it had a low rating, high expenditure and it was not attractive to advertisers (sic!). Kedikoglou missed the mere fact that a national TV is not meant to attract advertisers but to discuss topics of particular public interest, to give the word to unprivileged groups and to be a corrective to the authorities. The employees of ERT were broadcasting for months from frequencies that were given to them by other TVs, occupied the buildings of ERT in Athens and Thessaloniki, guarded the translators. They worked pro bono and stood up for the freedom of speech. But when the establishment came for ERT it was too late and there was no one to speak up. Those who replaced the ERT employees still believe that they are enjoying a greater freedom of speech than their colleagues in Bulgaria.
*Picture: The Lykavittos hill in Athens with the Chapel of “St. George” on top of it. Instead of gonfalons, radio antennas and speakers are rising above the Chapel. (Flickr/mendhak)