Press freedom in Greece has taken an extreme beating the past five years, as a result of austerity measures, censorship and violence against journalists. The grim situation must improve quickly, is what Freedom House, an international watchdog organization, tells InEurope.
The progress of all candidate countries in adopting EU laws and standards was judged in October, of which Turkey was one. The alleged rise of dictatorship under president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and last year’s repression of the Gezi Park movement have been a major concern in Brussels. In such context it is no wonder that press freedom has become EU’s key reference point of the state of democracy and human rights in the country, the Committee to Protect Journalists writes.
According to the Commission, freedom of the media is an indispensable indicator of a country’s readiness to become part of the EU. Ensuring this freedom is one of the main challenges facing enlargement countries. Political interference in the media and violence against journalists, are topical issues in societies of the Western Balkans and Turkey. “Freedom of expression is one of the essential foundations of the European Union”, the Commission explicitly states on its official website.
Nevertheless, EU memberstate Greece, the worlds’ oldest democracy, is not doing any better, and ranks at the bottom of EU countries in terms of press freedom. Ranked as number 35 in the renowned annual press freedom index of Reporters Without Borders of 2009, Greece has seen the sharpest decline of any country. Finding itself at place 99 in the 2014 rankings, it is below dozens of non-EU member states, including all Western Balkan countries, Gabon, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan and Liberia. All states with a repressive media policy.
Since the beginning of the financial slump in Greece press freedom has worsened. A beforehand rather unknown but long history of state intervention in the media, censorship, and interplay between major media magnates and government officials has become apparent.
“Greece had an unsustainable media environment”, says Jennifer Dunham, press freedom researcher for Freedom House. A vast part of media moguls depended heavily on state support, like favourable tax breaks and advertising money.
In exchange those outlets only published stories supportive of governmental policies. “It was a clear form of censorship. When the funding dried up, as a natural result of the crisis, a lot of private outlets went bankrupt. This had shown how corrupted the political and media landscape historically was”.
The closure of private outlets directly resulted in less media diversity but it is only a small part of the pile of problems. Since the economic hardship, the government feels insecure. “The only way it feels it can convince society of its deeds is to try to manipulate the media through coercion, censorship and shutdowns,” says Nikos Tsibidas, spokesman of ERT Open, a self-managed, rather critical public broadcaster.
The usage of physical violence against journalists is also a growing concern in the Mediterranean country since recent years. The Greek police in particular have increasingly resorted to violence, especially during protests against the unpopular austerity measures. It appears to be a tool to silence journalists reporting events that undermine the authorities’ power, however Dunham says most cases are caused by riot policemen simply not knowing how to handle the situation.
With the growing outbreak of public discontent and an insecure government, the past years have also cleared the way for an ongoing increase in cases of censorship. “When there is continuing cooperation between media magnates, businessmen and politicians, it is no surprise that journalists are driven to self-censorship, afraid of losing their job”, Dunham says. Journalists, who attempted to speak out about the costly bailout agreements, have been censored or fired. They now mostly write stories that are understood to be acceptable to the ownership of the media outlets they work for.
Above all, one of the most recent and much-discussed problems is the government that shut down ERT in June 2013, Greece’s official public broadcaster, calling it a “haven of waste.” Although, as has become quite evident, it only represented the tip of the iceberg, it is exemplary for the current situation Greek media is in right now.
“99 on the press freedom index? What an incredibly generous rating, it should have been a lot worse,” says a fanatical Nikos Tsibidas, who now works for Greece’s entirely self-managed public broadcasting corporation ERT OPEN, which was established after the unlawful closure of its official predecessor.
The sudden closure has been another punch in the face of Greece’s press freedom and the dignity of democracy. With its more than 2600 employees, three TV channels and numerous local radio stations, ‘Greece’s BBC’ was the only broadcaster with a national reach. “Without shrinking from criticizing the government, the media outlet usually published professional and balanced stories on a wider range of topics than most Greek media,” states Jennifer Dunham.
ERT’s news and current affairs promoted the government line but, unlike many private broadcasters, it also aired opposition views. Dunham: “Although the broadcaster had a state-appointed board, it had a group of good and honest journalists, editors and technicians.”
The government proclaimed that the shutdown combatted a unique lack of transparency, it particularly was an easy manner to fulfil the demands of foreign lenders – the EU, European Central Bank and IMF – on streamlining the public sector, a part of the austerity measures Greece had to fulfil. “Everyone was fired, ERT premises were invaded by riot policemen to literally pull the plug on the organization”, Tsibidas tells.
After a lot of strikes against the controversial decision, former employees started ERT Open. Tsibidas: “We have created something new. An internal hierarchy is gone; employees has decisive power. We can now criticize the government whenever we want to. ERT Open is for the Greek people, without any business interest or political interplay.” Although it was a struggle to keep afloat, the broadcaster has now survived for one year with money from journalists unions, workers confederations and donations.
Athens, where the radio shows are made, is currently the only city where the broadcaster doesn’t have a radio and television frequency. “We are fighting an ongoing frequency battle against the will of the state, and I can say that our technicians are doing a good job,” Tsibidas concludes. The goal is to fully restore the ERT service, regardless of how much time that may cost.
The Greek state soon replaced ERT with NERIT, the new public broadcaster. “It is fully controlled by the government,” both experts say. “NERIT has proven to be a really poor substitute for ERT, which results in a low audience share of 5%.” If you’d ask Tsibidas, Greece is now a little bit like Russia. “The country has a stern state broadcaster, which is nothing more than a vulgar marionette of the authorities, and private media oligarchs. Funny, as it once was the birthplace of democracy.”
If press freedom will soon improve in Greece, is hard to say. “Looking at how Nerit functions and the amount of self-censoring journalists, you would expect not. But now, with a new public broadcaster and EU help, is a great time to reform the institutional framework and the historic relationship between the government and the media,” Dunham says.
Lately the EU has been trying to improve the media landscape in Greece, particularly through comparative research studies and policy recommendations aimed at giving Greece tools for strengthening its press freedom. That’s not enough yet, argues Dunham. “It should help the country with shaping a new media framework, so old problems, such as interplay between political parties and media outlets, don’t occur again. On top of it, it should strengthen Greek institutions that can function as a watchdog”.
I hope reform takes place quickly. Media freedom is widely recognized as the “first freedom” in a democratic system, and is an indispensable factor in ensuring economic growth, transparency, good governance, and the protection of broader political rights and civil liberties.
Although it will be a rough ride, Dunham mentions that the new broadcaster provides an opportunity to get things right from the start. “It will be much easier to institute better practice than it would have been, say, to change a long-standing ERT, although its closure was unwanted. And remember, the Greek government’s intentions should be taken with a grain of salt.”