... when the Troika entered the picture it seemed like a nice compromise: the mass media outlets supported the austerity program, and the lenders allowed them to continue operating in a state of dubious legality ...
by Costas Efimeros
Over the last two days Greece’s largest television stations and the journalists who work for them have come under two separate investigations. These investigations, conducted by the Greek judicial system and the competent oversight body, were initiated after the ruthless YES-vote propaganda issued by the stations in advance of last week’s referendum. Now, however, the same people under investigation by the authorities are crying freedom of the press and claiming that their voices are being silenced. Let’s take a look at some of the facts:
Last week in Greece, two mass demonstrations were held outside Greek Parliament. NO vote supporters turned out en masse for a rally on Tuesday and the next day saw a demonstration led by the YES camp. Despite the comparable attendance at both rallies, the NO demonstration – according to official figures – was broadcast by all 6 of the nationwide television stations’ major news programs for a cumulative 8 minutes and 33 seconds. YES supporters fared far better, with 47 minutes and 32 seconds of on-air time dedicated to their rally.
But the propaganda problem doesn’t just boil down to numbers. Greece’s biggest television station, MEGA Channel, broadcast a report claiming that the capital controls had created mile-long lines outside the banks. The station cited exaggerated figures and used pictures that, it was later discovered, had been taken years ago in South Africa. When a guest on MEGA asked the anchorwoman “why do you only broadcast the YES viewpoint?” she replied “is it really our fault if all factions in Greece favor a YES?” The results of the referendum, which indicate that every region of the country no matter how small registered a majority NO vote, should provide her with answer enough.
From the beginning of the crisis right up to today, the mainstream media in Greece have ‘sold’ austerity’s formula to the nation’s citizens. At the parliamentary investigations committee it was revealed that major journalists had been travelling to the U.S. for IMF seminars. In 2011, Wikileaks published Top Secret wire messages from the American embassy in Athens regarding monitoring of the country’s media outlets. According to these messages, the embassy was even interfering in how talk shows were edited, in the interest of projecting a more favorable image of the United States abroad. Yannis Pretenteris, until last year Greece’s most popular newscaster, even admitted in his book that he knowingly lied to the Greek people every evening, but that he did so to help save the country.
Since the crisis began 3,000 journalists have lost their jobs. This has created a climate of fear and uncertainty in the workplace, and has only led to a hardening of the official line. Simply put, whoever opposes the interests of the media company loses his or her job.
In the past it had been claimed that, prior to the crisis, more newspapers and magazines were published per capita in Greece than anywhere else in Europe, and additionally that the existence of 6 nationwide channels was impressive indeed for a country of only 10 million. But the truth is that all of these media outlets were under either the direct or oblique control of just seven families (five of which are still in business today). For years these media moguls, known in Greece as ‘oligarchs’, kept their damaging outlets alive by taking out hundreds of millions worth of loans with no guarantees whatsoever.
Those behind Greece’s media outlets are either members of the large-scale construction companies that have received government contracts for nearly all infrastructures in the country, or shipping magnates who control the oil and exports markets. Few do anything different, and even in those cases a trail always somehow connects them back to the Greek state. Greece has thus witnessed the creation of a triangular network linking the government, banks, and mass media outlets, and it is within this structure that attempts have been made to mold public opinion so as to serve the common interests of all three.
From the start of the crisis and the implementation of the austerity program, all of the major mass media outlets rushed to defend the harsh policies of Greece’s lenders. This was not a one-sided deal. Even though there has been, ever since the first memorandum, a provision for the imposition of a 20% tax on television advertising, this is the sole measure which the Troika has allowed to be postponed by means of a decree issued on 31 December every year – now for five years running. But it goes beyond this: Greek television stations operate in Greece without licenses, thanks to a 1989 bill that granted trial licenses for research and development. And, in case you haven’t yet tired of all this: the oligarchs, besides not having paid for television licenses, for years haven’t even paid taxes, according to the country’s accounting office, on their usage of public frequencies. So when the Troika entered the picture it seemed like a nice compromise: the mass media outlets supported the austerity program, and the lenders allowed them to continue operating in a state of dubious legality (the highest court in the country -Council of the State- has already in two rulings decreed unlicensed frequency use illegal).
All of this was well established, and in recent years it also entered into the consciousness of Greek citizens, who, in the most recent surveys, ranked journalists even above politicians in the ‘unpopularity’ index. But this didn’t prevent the creation last week of an unprecedented propaganda machine, the purpose of which was to terrorize anyone who wanted to vote NO in the referendum.
The breach of every journalistic ethic on a 24-hour basis and the use of every means available to create a climate of fear in the national and international media yesterday prompted investigations on two levels. The Greek judicial system has now undertaken to examine charges made by citizens regarding the dissemination of lies, while the journalists’ oversight body has begun investigating individual journalists, nearly all of whom are television newscasters in Greece.
In the face of this development, the mainstream media have now begun to wage a war of misinformation, primarily abroad. They denounce this attempt at stifling the freedom of the press and characterize the Greek prime minister as the Chavez of Europe. The same media outlets that enjoyed access to 95% of the public (according to statistics for television coverage in Greece released by the National Telecommunications Service) and covered developments so one-sidedly are now protesting that they are being stifled and interfered with. In other words, the same media that earned Greece last place in Europe in the rankings issued by Reporters without Borders for the Freedom of the Press and a 99rd overall place in the world overall (after Gabon) maintain that the quality of journalism will deteriorate because the competent oversight bodies are overseeing them.
Have no illusions. This has all happened precisely because the mass media outlets unrestrictedly funded by the banks are the same ones that have foreign-language editions and issuing agreements with giant international media companies. These are resources they will draw upon so as to strike yet again at the current Greek government, whom they’ve been fighting for years.
Their only problem is that in Greece nobody buys their story anymore. That’s why SYRIZA is in power despite the war that the media waged in the run-up to elections, and that’s why despite the media’s shock doctrine two out of three Greeks voted NO in the recent referendum. Perhaps that’s why, as the data from the polls demonstrates, young people are turning more and more to the web, where besides the mainstream media pages they can also find efforts such as ThePressProject.
In conclusion, democracy in Greece is truly in trouble because of bad journalism. But this is because of the bad journalism practiced by the mainstream media – and not because the competent authorities are now trying to impose some manner of checks on this unprecedented phenomenon.