EXCLUSIVE / Greek lawmakers bickered yesterday (3 July) over a letter sent by EU Digital Commissioner Günther Oettinger to the government expressing serious concerns about media independence in the country.
A Commission official told EurActiv.com that these concerns were not related to an ongoing TV license tender. The statement seems to confirm the positions of the government and to contradict claims by the opposition.
In October 2015, the Greek parliament approved a new media bill, delivering on promises made under the bailout agreed on by Athens and its international creditor last July.
According to the government the law aims to open up competition in the media market to new players.
Minister of State Nikos Pappas told EurActiv in January that Greece’s coalition government was determined to inject some order into the broadcasting business.
“Greece is the only EU country that has never launched any licensing process for private TV channels for 25 years, maintaining the lawless regime of temporary licenses,” Pappas stated.
However, the opposition parties accused Syriza of trying to take control of media.
The new bill provides a license procedure that will take place through an international tender and will be conducted by Greece’s independent regulatory authority, the National Council for Radio and Television (NCRTV).
The ultimate number of broadcast licenses has sparked an intense controversy among Greek politicians.
The government limited the number of licenses to four, while the opposition said that there should be more, arguing that such a limit would deal a blow against media pluralism.
Greece’s Council of State is due to decide today (4 July) upon the complaints of private TV broadcasters related to the tender for the licensing of TV stations.
Monday is also the deadline for the submission of requests to participate in the auction for broadcasting licenses.
Contacted by EurActiv, the European Commission confirmed yesterday (3 July) that on 16 June, the executive sent a ‘Letter of Formal Notice’ to Greece expressing concerns about recent legislative changes in the telecoms sector.
“The Commission fears that these changes are not in line with requirements of EU law which guarantee the independence of the national telecoms regulator, more specifically its independence from the government,” an official said.
The executive stressed that the legislation giving the Minister for Infrastructures, Transport and Networks both control of an operator and regulatory tasks in the same sector, might be incompatible with EU law.
“Lastly, the Commission has concerns about the power of the Minister for Infrastructures, Transport and Networks to withdraw certain digital terrestrial television frequencies from the company to which they have already been allocated,” the official emphasised.
Letters of Formal Notice are the first formal step of infringement proceedings and aim at gathering more information on the issues at stake.
Greece now has two months to reply to this letter.
“Lost in translation”
The Greek government and the opposition sparred over whether the European Commission’s concerns are related to the ongoing tender, as well as the number of broadcast licenses.
The Greek government says the letter has nothing to do with the tender.
“This exchange of letters [between the Commission and the Greek government] is unrelated to licensing procedure,” Pappas said, adding that the EU executive never asked for further explanation over the number of licenses.
The opposition, though, claimed that the Commission’s letter targeted the new media law as a whole.
“The letter reveals the government’s plan to manipulate the independent authorities, by taking in its hands superpowers and the control of Greeks’ information,” Giorgos Koumoutsakos, spokesperson of the main opposition New Democracy party, stressed.
“Despite the recent assurances of the ‘propaganda minister’ that it was not the case, the country is being discredited again and the government is responsible for that,” he added.
The Association of Private TV Stations of National Range blamed Pappas for “hiding” the exchange of letters with the executive and noted that the attempt to limit the spectrum was contrary to the European legislation.
“The European Commission clearly condemned the move to issue only four licenses,” the Association wrote in a statement.
Not related to the tender
However, the European Commission informed EurActiv yesterday (3 July) that the infringement proceeding was “not related to the licensing of content providers in Greece”.
“The procedures for the granting of content licenses for television channels have not been harmonized at EU level,” an official said, and added: “Member states are thus free to operate licensing regimes in line with domestic requirements if these comply with EU law, including the freedoms to provide services and of establishment set out in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.”