The European Commission reiterated today (27 September) that the Greek government is free to operate licensing regimes in line with domestic requirements, putting an end to an intense controversy in Athens.
In June, EurActiv.com reported that the Commission did not contradict a new law in Greece intending to open up competition in the media market to new players (See background).
The Juncker Commission confirmed the report, with Spokesperson Margaritis Schinas saying that the procedures for the granting of content licenses for television channels was a national competence.
Last month, Athens raised an unexpected €246 million from the licence auction, which was welcomed by the executive.
However, a report broadcast yesterday (26 September) on the Greek edition of Deutsche Welle quoted European Commissioner for Digital Economy Gunther Oettinger as saying that the number of licenses is an affair of national states, but the Commission will intervene if there were grounds to suspect that the licencing process was interfering with media pluralism and press freedoms.
The report triggered strong reactions in Athens, and opposition parties urged the government to annul the tender.
Syriza MEP Dimitris Papadimoulis said that the New Democracy party was trying to “sabotage” the tender and accused it of being connected with the “corrupted old establishment”.
But the Commission made it clear today that there were two different issues at stake, confirming again the government positions.
Schinas stressed that the procedures for the granting of content licences for television channels had not been harmonised at the EU level and that the Commission took note of the results of the tender procedure on TV licences in Greece.
The EU official noted that on the one hand, the Commission had a clear role, under EU telecoms rules, when it comes to the licensing of radio frequencies to network operators.
However, on the other hand, when it comes to the allocation of separate content licences to TV broadcasters (to transmit broadcast content through the frequencies), the executive has no such specific role.
According to Schinas, “Member states are 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.”
The telecoms infringement
In June, the Juncker Commission decided to send a Letter of Formal Notice to Greece expressing concerns about recent legislative changes in the telecoms sector.
The Commission has expressed fears that these changes are not in line with the requirements of EU law, in particular, those which guarantee the independence of the national telecoms regulator.
Asked by EurActiv whether this infringement proceeding could eventually affect the results of the TV license tender, a high-ranking EU source replied “no”.
“These are two different issues,” the source explained, adding that the executive is still waiting for an answer from the Greek government.
EU sources told EurActiv that the Commission received a complaint by the Association of Private TV Stations of National Range (EITISEE) which is being analysed.
“We usually do not confirm complaints, which are treated confidentially, unless the complainants themselves make them public. It is the case in this situation as the Association of Private TV Stations of National Range (EITISEE) published a press release confirming they filed a complaint to the Commission,” the sources said without elaborating on the content of these complaints.
The same sources explained that the competences of the Commission in the area of media freedom and pluralism are limited. Whilst media freedom and pluralism are fundamental rights enshrined in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, the Charter “only applies to member states when they are implementing EU law”.
“It is mainly for member states to protect media freedom and pluralism within their respective country.”
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.