Greece cut sharply today (2 September) the number of television channels operating in the country, awarding just four broadcasting licences to an industry which authorities say is mired in mismanagement and corruption.
Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s leftist government has said the move will help regulate the sector and is in line with its international bailout obligations (see background). The local industry says, however, the policy will curb free speech and shut down stations, putting thousands of people out of work.
With only four licences were offered, some of the eight private channels now broadcasting nationwide will have to close.
Athens raised an unexpected €246 million from the licence auction. The starting price of the licenses was €3 million and the final price ranged between €43.6 and €75.9 million, a lot higher than the bidders initially expected.
The bidders will have 15 days to pay the first tranche of the amount, after their wealth and tax declarations are assessed.
Skai TV won the first licence, allowing it to stay on air. But it was critical of the process.
“We were not contesting a licence, we came to negotiate ransom,” said Costas Kimbouropoulos, Skai’s representative.
The government, elected on promises to take on “the oligarchs”, many of who run TV stations, has said the move will help bring order to the sector, which is in debt and generally discredited because of its political links.
Authorities said four channels was an appropriate number of broadcasters which could stay viable, based on advertising industry estimates of the television commercial market worth about €280 million annually.
Broadcasters, who have mounted a legal challenge to the process, say the auction was little more than an attempt to gag critics, but they still took part.
Antenna TV and two new entrants, Greek shipowner Evangelos Marinakis and contractor Yannis Kalogritsas, also won a licence after a bidding round held over three days.
Tsipras signed up to a new international bailout in July last year, the country’s third since 2010. Keen to convince its lenders that it qualifies for more cash and debt relief, Athens has agreed to a wave of unpopular measures including pension cuts and tax hikes.
On Friday, he said “each euro of the amount” raised would be used to support the vulnerable.
“It sends a message to foreign investors that there are rules in this country… that governments will no longer be playing political games awarding projects,” Tsipras said.
Existing operators who failed to secure a licence, among them Star channel and Alpha TV, will have 90 days before going off air, the government said. Mega TV, the first private station which aired in Greece in 1989, did not qualify for the auction because of outstanding debts.
The government has called the country’s media “vampires” living on borrowed funds that they cannot repay.
In a country where up to a fourth of its national output has been wiped out, media, along with a business and a political elite are frequently cited by ruling politicians as being part of an establishment responsible for Greece’s current woes.
State Minister Nikos Pappas, who oversaw the auction and is one of Tsipras’ closest aides said on Friday that Greece now has “TV channels which will inform Greek people objectively … not depending on their owners’ links to the political leadership.”
Opposition parties have accused the government of launching the auction to bring in new business players, more friendly to a party that swept to power for the first time last year and may have less influence over the state mechanism and private sector.
“The government wants to control information … and secondly it wants to create a system of corruption that can be controlled,” said Anna-Michele Asimakopoulou, a lawmaker with the conservative New Democracy party on Tuesday.
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.
The Tsipras government says that 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. 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.
The Commission has expressed concerns about recent legislative changes in the telecoms sector. The EU executive has 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. However, the Commission did not criticised the granting of licences to TV channels as such, because the procedure has not been harmonised at EU level.