EXCLUSIVE / The Syriza-led government is determined to put Greece’s TV landscape in order, despite its top court’s conclusion that a relevant media law is unconstitutional, Greece’s Minister of State Nikos Pappas told EURACTIV.com.
The opposition New Democracy party said that the ruling was a political defeat for the leftist government.
Contacted by EURACTIV, the head of New Democracy’s press office, Makarios Lazaridis, said that the country needed elections “to breathe and to restore political normalcy”.
The Council of State, Greece’s top administrative court, yesterday (26 October) ruled that the auction process which handed out four TV licences was unconstitutional.
The government reacted strongly to the Court’s decision, saying that in the past, via a fast-track process, the Council approved the sudden closure of Greek public broadcaster ERT.
Athens raised an unexpected €246 million from the licence auction, which was welcomed by the European Commission. Greek Premier Alexis Tsipras had promised to grant this money to people mostly hit by the austerity policies [See Background].
The opposition blamed the government for adopting a populist stance, as this money would go for debt repayment.
The Greek government accuses the opposition of having tolerated the fact that for 27 years, TV channel owners had illegally and unconstitutionally avoided paying for the public frequencies they used.
Opposition lawmakers have publicly admitted that they should have taken action before. However, they accuse the Minister of State, Nikos Pappas, of acquiring new powers for the authorization of television channels, and the Syriza government of trying to take control of the media.
Opposition legislators also claim that setting a limit on the number of nationwide broadcasters to four, rather than the eight which now exist, was a blow against pluralism.
The license procedure should normally be conducted by Greece’s independent regulatory authority, the National Council for Radio and Television (NCRTV), which was not the case due to the conflict between the government and the opposition over the appointment of NCRTV board members.
The mandate of the previous board ended at the end of 2015. An enhanced majority (4/5) of the 23-member conference of presidents of all political parties is needed in order to appoint the new NCRTV members.
Pappas tried to reach a consensus with New Democracy by saying that in the event of a consensus on the NCRTV, the number of licenses would be decided by the parliament and not him.
But New Democracy did not give its consent, and urged Pappas to withdraw his bill.
“The first moves of the government indicate that it won’t address the issue in a serious way. The government is doing what it knows better… to be populist,” New Democracy’s Vice-President, Costis Chatzidakis, told SKAI TV.
“Our party will be responsible and serious to set up NCRTV, but it takes two to tango,” he added.
The unconstitutional regime is over
“We will not allow the return to the previous unconstitutional regime,” Pappas told EURACTIV.
“Those, who believe that after the Council of State decision I will sign a scrap of paper that tells the closed club of TV channel owners ‘go on as you are’, are mistaken,” he added.
Pappas emphasised that there is no way for the government to back down and noted that until the permanent licences, the government will issue “operation certificates” worth 25 million euros annually.
The leftist politician added that these certificates would end a regime in which TV channels were free-riders and promised “strict operation conditions”.
“We will put an end to the illegality of the TV landscape,” Pappas concluded.
Opposition asks for elections
Makarios Lazaridis told EURACTIV that “Pappas law” belonged to the past.
“There is a deeply undemocratic, anti-institutional reaction of the government to the court’s decision, which betrays logic and philosophy of totalitarianism,” he said.
“New Democracy will soon table a comprehensive bill to deal with it,” he noted, adding that the bill will restore the powers of the NCRTV and will abolish the “insane” limited number of licenses, which damages pluralism.
“As long as a law is passed that restores the NCRTV responsibilities, we will agree to the establishment of the Council, as we have done for the other four constitutional bestowed independent authorities – something that Syriza did not do while being in opposition,” he said.
“The country needs elections to breathe and to restore political normalcy,” Lazaridis concluded.
New Democracy chief Kyriakos Mitsotakis accused the government of trying to manipulate government institutions in order to remain in power and called on citizens “to restore legitimacy”, saying that this can be achieved “through elections”.
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.
However, the opposition parties accused Syriza of trying to take control of media.
“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.