New media law sparks intense controversy in Athens

Alexis Tsipras [L] and Nikos Pappas [R] [Sarantis Michalopoulos]

Greek lawmakers are bickering over how to implement a new law which aims to open up competition in the media market.

In October 2015, the Greek parliament approved a new media bill, which is part of debt-ridden country’s commitment under the bailout agreed on by Athens and its international creditor last July.

But the appointment of Greece’s independent regulatory authority board members, as well as the ultimate number of broadcast licenses have sparked an intense controversy among Greek politicians resulting in an institutional dead-end.

For the leftist Syriza government, the new media law is a good opportunity to dismantle the old establishment that led Greek economy to a deadlock, while for the opposition parties it’s perceived as an attempt by Alexis Tsipras to take full control of the media.

It is also a perquisite for the completion of the first bailout review, as the country is struggling to stabilize its finances.

>>Read: Greece set for major credit rating upgrade

Last week, Standard and Poor’s ratings agency upgraded Greece’s credit rating by one notch to B-, claiming the country is broadly complying with the terms of its latest international bailout.

The crisis seems to have put the Greek media to the test.

According to annual Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index, since the beginning of the economic crisis, press freedom has dramatically dropped.

In 2008, the country ranked 31st among 173 countries, while in 2015 it came 91st out of 180 countries on a global level.

A tough battle

Minister of State Nikos Pappas, an influential figure in the Syriza party, and a close ally of Tsipras, told EURACTIV:

“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,”, told EURACTIV.

“The government is determined to put an order in the broadcasting landscape,” Pappas added.

Currently, there is no legal framework on content providers in compliance with the requirements of digital broadcast transmission.

A Greek government source that spoke to a group of journalists in Brussels last week noted that for over 25 years, TV content providers had been broadcasting by holding “only provisional licenses”.

The same source said that entering the digital era, “TV channels sought to become established as de facto digital content providers under the pretext that there are no spectrum limitations any longer.”

The Syriza-led government said that a license process via international open bids should take place, restoring the “legality” of TV channels operations and opening up the market to new players.

Construction sector excluded

According to the new law, TV media owners are obliged to provide detailed information regarding their ownership structure.

In an effort to break the link between the state and private interests, licensees holding non-performing loans, as well as those who are contractors to public authorities, such as in the construction sector, “are excluded from participation in the open bids procedures”.

The issue of having TV channel owners being simultaneously active in the construction sector has put several Greek governments in a difficult position in the past. 

The left-wing Syriza believes that existing content providers hold a dominant position in the domestic market and, therefore, block the entrance to any potential new players.

“The reform of the media landscape will remedy old institutional dysfunctions and will bring Greece back newly into the European media market,” the same source explained.

Fight over the number of licenses

The license procedure 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 procedure has been blocked, though, due to the conflict between the Greek coalition government and the opposition parties 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.

Last week, the conference of presidents did not manage to reach an agreement, as a 4/5 majority was not achieved. The opposition parties, except the Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok), blocked the process.

The opposition parties accuse the Minister of State, Nikos Pappas, of gathering superpowers on his face for the authorization of channels and that Syriza government is trying to take the control of the media.

Before the parliament vote, Pappas tried to reach a consensus with the center-right opposition New Democracy party by saying that in the event of a consensus on the NCRTV, the number of licenses will be decided by the parliament and not him.

He also increased the number of NCRTV board members from 7 to 9 in order for the body to be “more representative” and include members proposed by all parties, a move that was heavily criticized by the opposition.

After the deadlock in the conference of presidents’ vote, Alexis Tsipras office critcised the New Democracy leader, Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

“Mr. Mitsotakis is a hostage to the various interests and the TV contractors and denies the consensual establishment of the NCRTV. His aim is to cancel the contest, and those who had for so many years a free use of public frequencies, not to pay anything.”

Media reports in Athens suggested yesterday (25 January) that Pappas was planning to “de facto abolish” NCRTV and make the TV channel authorization process subject to the parliament majority.

Commission’s stance

The European Commission seems to view the new media law in a positive light.

Contacted by EURACTIV, an EU spokesperson explained that it was up to the member states to set up the procedures for the granting of content licenses for television channels as this has not been harmonized at EU level.

“Member states are indeed free to operate licensing regimes in line with domestic requirements if these comply with the freedoms to provide services and of establishment set out in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (meaning, for example, that other EU broadcasters can provide services in Greece),” the EU spokesperson said.

Referring to the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), the EU official said that the Greek government was committed to launching an international tender for the acquisition of television licenses, and use related fees of relevant frequencies as one potential measure to be presented by the Greek authorities to help meet its agreed fiscal targets.

“The reference is thus related to its fiscal impact. As with all MoU commitments, these would need to be agreed with the institutions and also need to fully compatible with EU law. As no proposal has been made by the Greek authorities in this respect, there have thus been no discussions with the institutions.”

The EU spokesman also stressed that this had to be differentiated from exchanges that the Commission has on the implementation of the EU Telecoms rules in Greece in autumn. “These exchanges were not related to TV licenses”.

In autumn, the Commission confirmed to be in contact with the Greek authorities on issues related to the independence of national telecoms regulatory authorities and digital terrestrial transmissions (assignment of frequencies).

“These exchanges between the Commission and the member states are common practice. The replies were received on 4 January 2016 and our services are assessing them.”

New Democracy (EPP)

“We are witnessing a broader effort to dismantle independent pillars of the state from an executive which is annoyed by independent voices," Kyriakos Mitsotakis said, accusing Pappas for his “superpowers”.

Syriza (GUE-NGL)

Greek government sources told EURACTIV: “The opposition parties have already voted in favor of the so-called “superpowers” in other laws in the past. The number of the authorized licenses is a competence of the Minister. What is their proposal? To extend the temporary license regime?”    

The Potami (S&D)

“The loans taken by the TV channels and the parties of New Democracy and Pasok are the main reason that the media sector has remained unregulated for 25 years. The superpowers of the State Minister are the definition of new convolutedness.”

Democratic Coalition (PASOK and the Democratic Left- S&D)

“The superpowers of the State Minister are against the constitution and are promoted in such a way that he controls pluralism in media.”

Communist Party

“The State Minister is playing the role of arbitrator among big business interests. The bill is opaque and deliberately does not provide any feasibility studies, the number of licenses, and the business capital.”

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