ATHENS: Greece is in the grip of a row over television, with the government under attack for plans to slash the number of private channels in a sector that was hit hard by the financial crisis.
Authorities say they want to clean up an industry known for its workforce exploitation and rumored under-the-table deals between media moguls, bankers and influential politicians, while bringing an end to 25 years of chaotic licensing.
The debt-laden government insists only “financially sustainable” channels should be allowed to broadcast, with several struggling stations reportedly owing large sums to both banks and state coffers.
But critics say the overhaul is merely a ploy by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to replace powerful TV barons — who have opposed his leftist Syriza party in the past — with others more to his liking.
Opposition leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis has accused the government of “authoritarian practices”, saying: “If you are interested in pluralism, you should have given more licences.”
Greece has eight private nationwide TV channels, offering up a mix of rowdy talk shows, news and entertainment.
These have been operating under provisional licences, in some cases for over two decades — and Syriza has frequently accused previous governments of using broadcasters’ precarious status to extract favorable coverage.
Now the government wants to grant just four 10-year licenses.
“This will bring an end to the era of arbitrariness,” Tsipras promised last week.
The government has launched an international tender, with opening bids starting at three million euros ($3.4 million). A shortlist will be announced on July 14.
Too much TV?
Times have been tough for media since Greece’s financial crisis began in 2010, with many outlets closing as advertising slumped, and the survivors forced to cut thousands of jobs while taking on huge debt.
According to a Kathimerini daily report, TV channels lost half their advertising revenue, around 400 million euros ($450 million), between 2008 and 2012.
The government says capping the number of channels would mean more advertising per channel — and that 11 million Greeks hardly need so many TV stations.
Other European countries around Greece’s size, like Austria and Portugal, only have between two and four private channels.
The decision was based on research by the European University Institute in Florence — but the Association of Private TV Channels (EITISEE) says the study uses flawed calculations.
Michael Bletsas of the MIT Media Lab produced a counter-study arguing there would be room for up to 40 standard-definition channels.
“Given the number of assumptions one has to make in order to come up with four, it seems to me that they started from the number four and worked their way backwards,” Bletsas told Agence France-Presse.
George Pleios, media studies chief at the National University of Athens, agrees in principle with reducing the number of channels, but not with the way it is being done.
“I think the market can sustain no more than two or three channels. But it should be up to the market to regulate itself, not to the state,” he said.
‘Triangle of corruption’
Leading channel Mega TV, which is seeking to block the tender in court, could be the biggest casualty of the overhaul.
The channel came close to bankruptcy last month. Its staff, unpaid for two months after banks froze the channel’s accounts because of late payments, have repeatedly gone on strike. It is poorly placed to win one of the four coveted licences.
For media minister Nikos Pappas, it is key that the bidding process is demanding transparency from channels about their finances, with indebted companies barred.
Many channels’ finances are “opaque”, he complains, allowing their businessman owners to prop them up through other assets.
But it may prove difficult to unravel what’s known as the “triangle of corruption” — the web of interests between the media, banks and politicians.
Researchers have frequently raised questions about the ease with which TV channels have secured hundreds of millions of euros in bank loans in an otherwise cash-starved economy.
And while Tsipras’s government says it wants to clean up the murky industry, it too has been accused of playing politics when it comes to which channels get a helping hand.
Struggling Mega, observers note, has been locked in a tug-of-war with Syriza over the station’s dismissal of Tsipras’s anti-austerity rhetoric.
Sofia Chaimanta of the Greek journalists’ union said it would take more than a new licensing law to change the landscape.
“When it comes to interdependence as well as corruption, there are always three partners: political power, business and mass media,” she said. “No law can (change this) without a real will to have transparency and independence in the media.” AFP