Freedom of the Press
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There were several positive developments for press freedom in 2015. In April, Parliament passed a law reestablishing the Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation (ERT) as Greece’s public broadcaster, bolstering media diversity in the country. In October, the government passed a law reforming the television licensing process, and establishing a public digital broadcaster to compete with the privately-held monopoly Digea. However, the ongoing financial crisis continued to adversely affect media freedom in Greece, straining the resources and capabilities of private outlets and creating a polarized political environment that encourages political and legal pressure on journalists.
- In January 2015, journalist Kostas Vaxevanis received a 26-month prison sentence under Greece’s criminal defamation law. At the year’s end he remained free pending appeal.
- In June, the government reopened ERT, the state broadcaster that was controversially shut down in the name of austerity in 2013.
- In October, the government passed legislation aimed at reforming the television licensing regime. Before the law’s approval, it had been more than decade since licensing tenders were held for television stations, leaving them to operate on successive one-year license extensions.
Legal Environment: 15 / 30 (↑1)
The constitution and various laws include provisions for freedom of speech and the press. However, there are some legal restrictions on speech that incites fear, violence, and public disharmony, as well as on publications that are obscene, offend religious beliefs, or advocate violence against the political system. Defamation and insult are criminal offenses, both carrying imprisonment as a possible punishment. Politicians and private actors launched a number of such proceedings against journalists and other media actors in 2015. In one notable case, the president of Marfin Investment Group, Andreas Vgenopoulos, sued journalist Kostas Vaxevanis of Hot Doc magazine for defamation following a series of exposes on Vgenopoulos’s business practices. A lower court in Athens ruled in Vgenopoulos’s favor in March 2015 and sentenced Vaxevanis to 26 months in prison; at year’s end he was free pending appeal.
The judiciary generally handles media cases impartially. While there was some criticism of courts’ handling of cases related to the ERT closure, Greece’s constitution is vague on the responsibilities of the state to maintain a public broadcaster. The constitution establishes the right of access to public information as permitted under the law. Access to documents can be denied or restricted if they include information about national security, criminal investigations, or the personal lives of individuals.
Law 4339, a new broadcasting law approved in October 2015, contains some measures expected to improve press freedom in the television sector. Under one of the law’s components, television broadcasting permits will be issued through open auctions administered by the National Council of Radio-Television (NCRTV) and will last for a ten-year period; before the law’s approval, it had been more than decade since licensing tenders were held for television stations, and stations were operating on successive one-year license extensions. The measure’s intention is to increase state revenues, allow new players to enter the field, and strike at the cozy, symbiotic relationship that has existed—and has long been decried by the political left—between Greek broadcasters and the traditional political powers, the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) and New Democracy parties. Law 4339 also creates a new digital broadcaster, to be housed under the umbrella of ERT, that will generate competition for Digea, the private digital broadcaster that is co-owned by Greece’s major media groups. The law also contains measures to prevent smaller broadcasters from being priced out of the digital marketplace.
Law 4339 addresses radio broadcasting only peripherally, and the sector remains largely unregulated. As with television, the government has issued successive one-year extensions of the licenses that otherwise would have expired. In lieu of a license, many stations rely on a “certificate of legality” that can be revoked at any time, while others operate without any legal status. A law passed in 2014 permitted radio stations that are registered as news stations to change their legal classification to “non-news.” However, there are no legal pathways for non-news stations to change into news stations. Because of the lack of new licenses, this development has created major hindrances to the establishment of news stations.
NCRTV is empowered by law to regulate broadcasting; its seven members are appointed by Parliament. The body has been accused of lacking impartiality and implementing regulations and penalties unevenly across media outlets, often based on the political connections of the outlet’s owners.
Political Environment: 20 / 40 (↑1)
Political influence on content published by private and public outlets was apparent on numerous occasions in 2015, a year marked by the intensification of the financial crisis, two parliamentary elections, and a dramatic national referendum on the terms of a debt restructuring deal. Law 4324, approved in April, laid the groundwork for the closing of the scandal-ridden New Hellenic Radio, Internet, and Television (NERIT) network and the reopening of ERT, which was accomplished in June. This event restored much of the status quo ante of June 2013, but was viewed as problematic by opposition parties, which expressed concern about political bias connected to ERT’s economic dependence on the SYRIZA government. As an example, conditions for a September 2015 pre-election debate between SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras and Vangelis Meïmarakis of New Democracy were criticized when a guest on a pre-debate program accused Meïmarakis of being involved in scandals without offering proof.
Meanwhile, the National Federation of Unions of Employees of Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation (POSPERT) and opposition parties, particularly PASOK, objected to the combination of political appointments and strong decision-making power that will be exercised by ERT’s chief executive officer and board of directors. On a positive note, Law 4324 opens two positions on the board of directors to employees, one of whom must be a journalist. The law specifically forbids members of the board of directors of a union or other labor organization from filling either of these slots, another bone of contention with POSPERT, and specifies that the representatives will be determined by a direct, secret, and universal vote by ERT staff.
As part of their protests of the new administrative structure of ERT, POSPERT decided to keep ERTopen, the pirate broadcaster that had continued to function after the closure of ERT, on the air even after ERT was reinstated. In September 2015 the president of POSPERT and the organization’s treasurer were arrested for illegal broadcasting and the equipment the organization was using was seized. The two men were freed pending trial, and in December, the organization’s equipment was again seized by the National Telecommunications and Post Commission in the presence of a public prosecutor. POSPERT objected to each intervention, noting that all radio stations in Greece are effectively operating illegally and that ERTopen should not be singled out.
Since its return to the airwaves, ERT, while sometimes aligning itself with SYRIZA, appears to be more politically insulated than it has been in the past; reporters have tried to maintain a veil of neutrality, and the network devotes substantial time to airing opposition parties’ positions on issues of importance. Austerity measures have prevented the SYRIZA government from hiring large numbers of party loyalists to work at ERT. Most significantly, it was the sole national broadcaster that supported a vote to reject the terms offered in the June 2015 referendum on the debt deal.
Violence against the press is infrequent in Greece, but not unknown. Acts of aggression have occurred during protests in recent years, and in 2015, several reporters were attacked while attempting to cover the wave of migrants and refugees landing in Greece from the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere.
Economic Environment: 13 / 30 (↑1)
The audiovisual sector includes ERT, more than 100 private television stations (including five major stations with national reach), and hundreds of private radio stations. The print sector has grown smaller in recent years, as circulation has fallen dramatically and many outlets have been forced to shut down due to financial strain. There are several independent publications and websites, including some that portray the government unfavorably. However, many media owners have a close relationship with political actors, including members of the government, and this is often reflected in a lack of critical commentary on key issues.
A 2007 media law requires that the main language of radio stations be Greek. The same law permits stations owned by political parties with representation in Parliament to operate without a license. There are no distinct legal provisions for low-power, university, or community radio stations to be licensed and to operate.
Although information on the ownership of radio and television outlets is available to the public, the exact structure of ownership is veiled by the holding companies and little-known entities listed in official records, and no ownership information is provided for print or online media. High concentration of ownership—including cross-media ownership—has also negatively affected media independence, as the media sector is dominated by wealthy businessmen with interests in shipping, telecommunications, and other industries.
The company Digea won a 2013 government tender for a nationwide license to operate Greece’s digital transmitters, in a process that heavily favored it. This effectively created a monopoly. Law 4339, the 2015 television broadcasting law, seeks to address Digea’s monopoly by creating a state-funded competitor under the umbrella of ERT.
The financial crisis and the resulting decline in circulation and advertising continue to place strain on Greece’s media sector, as do rising utility costs and prohibitive music licensing fees. Numerous media outlets have shut down, reduced staff and salaries, scaled down or eliminated news departments, or failed to pay wages. A provision of the new broadcasting law that sets staff and asset requirements for various types of television broadcasting outlets is likely to raise costs for private channels, and may lead some to close. Strikes, usually due to unpaid wages, have been frequent in recent years. Many outlets reportedly owe large sums in unpaid taxes and contributions to banks and the state, including for employee insurance funds. Nevertheless, the media sector is one of the few able to receive loans at a time when Greek banks have had to be recapitalized and when lending is highly selective. Separately, many ERT employees who had not received severance pay or faced severance reductions throughout 2014 were rehired after the reopening of ERT in 2015.
The financial relationship connecting media outlets to banks and the government is one of the factors affecting not only content but also the placement of advertising. Clientelism influences the allocation of state publicity, which is often issued based on political favoritism, rather than audience size, while the associated business ventures of major media owners are often favored for the awarding of public contracts and public works projects. Political parties also tend to advertise with outlets that provide favorable coverage; for example, Hot Doc magazine, which strongly and openly favors SYRIZA, is a major beneficiary of advertising from that party. In 2015, television stations were again exempted from a 20 percent tax on advertising revenues, which has not been collected since its introduction in 2010.
Nearly 67 percent of the population accessed the internet regularly in 2015, and access is generally not restricted. Many journalists and citizens utilize the internet to disseminate independent or alternative viewpoints.