Among all the laws that were passed in Greece the past year, one that particularly needs to be examined further is the auction of broadcasting permits. Not that long ago, the governing party, SYRIZA, announced that the Greek public domain would auction off four permits to four channels that would allow them to continue working. To make things clearer, the channels are only general content channels that transmit all over Greece. Aside from that, there is always ERT, the public channel, and other regional and recreational channels. The plan is for general content, regional, and recreational channels to go through the same auction process in the near future as the public finances benefited greatly from this auction.
But why did only four general content channels get the permit?
The reasoning behind it, according to SYRIZA, is that the Greek market can only handle four channels and no more. They also point out that other, more populated European countries have 2-6 private channels, whereas Greece has 8. The opposition, the liberal New Democracy, claims that SYRIZA is trying to muzzle media owners that opposed them and favour those that supported them. On the other hand, SYRIZA claims that they just want to clear the corrupted media landscape and make sure that the remaining channels offer a holistic view of the world.
The government’s interaction with television channels has been contentious. In 1989, the government voted for law 1866/89 that allowed private, non-governmental channels to be opened up by people with experience in the media world. This ended the monopoly of the national channel, the ERT. The permits that the first channels like MEGA or ANT1 got were temporary. From that year on, various governments renewed temporary permits and working channels functioned in a semi-legal state. In 2013, the New Democracy government decided to close down ERT due to various problems and then, once again, renewed the temporary permits. After a long fight by the workers in ERT, the national channel started functioning again. The government also decided to auction off permanent permits. The decision that SYRIZA took is long overdue. Officially, permanent permits have to be given to the channels. However, the small number of channels, the process, and the cost of the whole thing are questionable. The government even decided to override the Greek National Council for Radio and Television (NCRTV), an independent administrative authority that supervises and regulates the radio/television market.
The actual process is one that has never been done in Greece before and it is as mentioned below.
Each channel delegation is assigned one room with a computer. The computer communicates only with the supervisor of the auction. The room is wired, and the representative is not allowed to have any electronic device. The reserve price for the first permit is set to 3 million euros and each incremental bid is 500 euros. There are two theories about how the price is going to be discovered for each permit. The first one claims that the strongest bidder will bid a huge amount right away to scare the competitors away; he will win the first permit and the other three will go for lower prices. The second one supports that as the permits get fewer and fewer, the competition will rise and the last one will be the most expensive one as the remaining bidders will be in a state of desperation. After the bidder wins, he is not allowed to leave the room or communicate with anyone. He has to wait until the final permit is sold. The whole procedure is expected to last 32 hours minimum and is extremely costly. The building needs to be wired, food has to be provided and mechanical toilets have to be rented. Even if the representative wants to go the bathroom, he has to go with a police officer.
Being aware of this process, the channel representatives arrived at the building carrying sleeping bags and blankets, expecting the next few hours to be long and painful. To counter stress, the food provided was of the highest quality including, but not limited to, various desserts, ice cream, traditional Greek food and chicken with noodles. The auction wrapped up at 2 o’clock in the morning of September the 3rd with four out of eight candidates owning a permit. Numerous channels didn’t even make it to the process due to economic reasons; some owed money to the Greek government and were eliminated on that ground.
The building itself was full of expensive cameras and security equipment. The room where the auction took place wasn’t bugged with cameras for privacy reasons and the press wasn’t allowed inside. The process took hours and rumors were spread around without anyone knowing what was really going on. Eventually, the results were published. The first, and cheaper, permission was sold for 43. 6 million euros to SKAI, while the fourth and final one was for 73, 9 million euros. The Greek government received 246 million euros in total with 14,806.89 euros being spent on the process. Four of the biggest channels didn’t manage a spot and are expected to close in 90 days. The oldest private channel lost the auction as well. Representatives later told journalists that the process was “too much” and that the prices were way higher than they had expected.
During the economic crisis, the press freedom in Greece was challenged. The Reporters without Borders Press Freedom Index placed Greece in the 99th place in 2014, in comparison to its 35th in 2009. Other Balkan countries are way higher and even countries like Lebanon and Kuwait place higher. The press crisis in Greece reflects the overall situation. When both the ethics and the morale of the people are down, it is reflected in the work of the press. It’s not only the pressure the government puts on various press outlets, but also the effect of individuals that affect the landscape. It is worth mentioning that two of the four channel owners that won a permit from the auction also own the two bigger football teams here and have major economic, social and political influence. Both of them have a questionable past. It is the job of press to cover all the major issues in such critical periods but with the current auction, that diminishes greatly. Thousands of people are faced with the prospect of losing their jobs and the available four channels alone can, in no way, depict a diverse group of views and ideas. It is most likely that the quality of news will diminish in the nearby future. The pressure of news coverage falls onto newspapers and magazines and other traditional means of information, but even those will face a crisis as most have affiliations with some of the channels that have closed. Anyway, the act of closing down four press outlets during a period of uncertainty is something that needs to be questioned. It tests the limits of the rights of expression and the rights of the press. It can be viewed as a way to threaten and restrain the remaining channels.
The canceled channels appealed to the highest court, the Council of State, hoping the law would be judged anti-institutional. Finally, in November, the Council judged that the law is anti-constitutional, giving no time for proposing correction to the law. Hence, the law has no legal sanctity and the government has to give back all the money they earned from the permits. The channels that did not get a permit can function as before. The blow to the government is quite significant as this undermines their hard work and it sets their budget back even further.
Sources (In Greek):