The issue of the licensing scheme for Greek television operators through auction aiming to maximize revenue, has turned into a deep political problem in a country where everything is political. From the none-tie wearing Prime minister and his Ministers, to the potential privatization of everything, not excluding the Acropolis of Athens.
Until now, all TV private operators are broadcasting through extensions of temporary licenses the government handed out to Press entrepreneurs during the late 1980s.
Until the crisis came to surface some 7 years ago, most of the TV stations were profitable. In addition, they paid large amounts in general and special taxes, such as a publicity tax that kept the press workers’ social security fund TSEPEATH alive, when most funds had severe problems.
It is true that since the late 80s, no government attempted to regulate the market by issuing permanent licenses to broadcasters, as all governments wanted to keep receiving good tax earnings from the media owners and keep them serving as political “hostages”. In this way, they let them broadcast with yearly license extensions that would pass through the Greek Parliament via late night amendments.
The new government
Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ SYRIZA-AnEl government rose to power with one promise, to regulate the “corrupt” … “sewer” of a Media landscape, something that Minister of State Nikos Pappas did not start immediately upon taking office. The plan was there, and indeed the earnings from the license granting process were already calculated and budgeted into 2016’s State budget.
Together with the additional earnings, the government thought to take advantage of the opportunity to limit the number of licenses to politically manageable levels and with an unorthodox manner decided to grant four licenses, two to traditional TV networks and two to new comers. The numerical limiting of licenses is against the pluralism of media principle enshrined both in the EU treaties, and indeed the Greek constitution. It also happens in no other EU member state according to a European Commission report.
The Russian link
The traditional media networks that bid enough to get licences are SKAI and ANTENA and it seems that the government believes they can control the tone of their news broadcasts, while the new comers, a ship-owner who also controls one of the three big football teams and the other a contractor, close to the current government who according rumors is negotiating to sell the license to a Greek-Russian, owner of another football team from Thessaloniki, reportedly member of the entourage of the Russian president Vladimir Putin.
The Greek government seems close to Russia, having fraternised Greece’s national news agency with the Russian pro-Putin Sputnik News. Greece also held Russia as “Guest of Honour” at the 81st International Thessaloniki Fair, covering 3,000 m2 of exhibition space with its enterprises.
Russians have great access in Greece as (among other interests) they also control one of the monasteries of Mount Athos, the Autonomous Monastic State of the Holy Mountain of the Orthodox Church. It is the monastery of Saint Panteleimon and Vladimir Putin is a frequent visitor. As Mount Athos is an autonomous area, it cannot be excluded that the monastery is being used by the Russians for other uses other than religion. This, however, is an issue of great interest to NATO, and not to the EU.
Complaint to the European Commission
But the Media struggle for freedom of speech, independence, and pluralism does not end there. The government has yet to answer over the digital frequency spectrum issues that were raised by EU Commissioner of Digital Economy and Society Günther Oettinger in his Letter of Formal Notice, sent on 16 June.
EU Commission sources suggest that the Greek government has failed to answer to all questions raised by Oettinger, that were not limited to alleged digital spectrum withdrawal that the Greek government plans, but includes worries over the constitutionally grounded independent authority (National Council for Radio and Television) being bypassed and forced into hibernation throughout the license tendering process. Oettinger however did not enter the tender process itself, as it is not in his portfolio.
A stumbling block at the moment is a complaint by the Association of Private TV Stations of National Range (EITISEE) that the EU Commission insists that it is still considering. The complaint targeted Oettinger, and reporters have been receiving the same reply, that it is a matter of competence of the member state, and that the EU can only intervene if the process is against EU law. This is what is under examination.
Although the complaint was sent to Oettinger, the matters of Rule of Law and the compatibility with the ‘media pluralism’ principle enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty have made it a problem for First Vice-President Frans Timmermans until today. EU officials hinted that there is also a competition angle that is being examined, which may also be critical.
With two of the EITISEE complainants being awarded a license, it is questionable with what vigour the complainants will continue to champion their complaint as a single body. At the moment, the Commission is waiting for the decision of the Council of State of Greece, and hoping that they will not have to intervene. If the Council of State does not cancel the licensing process, the EU seems to be ready to examine not just the questions under Oettinger’s competence, but Competition, rules for public awards, and indeed if need be the Rule of Law.
Though the Commission keeps falling back on the issue of the EITISEE complaint, the case of Greek licensing goes beyond the complaint, and merits intervention independently from stakeholders’ perspective. With the case of Poland, after all, there has been much more sensitivity shown than with Greece.
The chief spokesperson, Margaritis Schinas, is staying away from the matter as much as possible. Given his political affiliation, any statement he makes can be used by the Greek government as a propaganda tool to suggest bias. Indeed, his silence is another indication at how much tension the matter is creating inside the European Commission headquarters, the Berlaymont.