ATHENS -- Greece’s crushing economic crisis, which has upended the country’s politics and jeopardized its currency tie with the European Union, has also put another institution on the spot: the news media.
Amid allegations of unethical journalistic practices that may have contributed to the mess the country’s in, the outsider political coalition, whose popularity has skyrocketed, says it wants to abolish the cozy relationship that’s long existed between media owners and politicians, and to halt the practice of government payments to individual journalists.
On the eve of Sunday’s second-round election, the outsider coalition, known as Syriza, or the Radical Left, was reported neck-and-neck with the conservative New Democracy party. Both parties were expected to draw less than the 35 percent of the vote needed to form a government, and the winner is likely to have to search for a coalition partner.
Public support for the upstart Syriza party has surged largely because of its pledge to suspend the EU-imposed economic austerity measures that have led to a dramatic economic contraction here, but in demanding reforms to the rules governing the news media the coalition may have tapped into another source of voter disaffection. A poll earlier this month published by Mono magazine showed that more than 80 percent of the public do not view the Greek news media as objective.
While Greece has some excellent investigative journalists and some mavericks who challenge the system, the absence of a prevailing ethos of independent reporting helped enable the government to overstate Greece’s readiness for adopting the euro, and later precluded public awareness that the government was lying about its deficit to the European Union, said George Pleios, head of the department of communications at the National University in Athens.
One reason for the lack of trust may be that a significant number of journalists have two masters – their own news outlet and the organizations or firms they are covering. A Syriza official alleged that thousands of reporters maintain conflicts of interest and that 500 to 600 journalists are or have been on the payroll of a government agency.
Syriza may still be smarting at the treatment it received prior to the first round of elections May 6, when it rose from a fringe party to become the No. 2 finisher. Even the most respected news outlets treated Syriza with disdain during the campaign – in the process missing the dramatic public shift away from the Socialist PASOK and the conservative New Democracy parties that have dominated the scene for more than three decades.
The leading daily Kathimerini, for example, reported Syriza’s pre-election rally – practically the only major party event that week that appeared to spark genuine enthusiasm – without noting its size or tone, and it compared firebrand party leader Alexis Tsipras unfavorably to Andreas Papandreou, the discredited leader of PASOK. A day earlier, it gave a noticeably uncritical account of PASOK’s sole press conference, from which foreign media had been barred, by recounting the responses of leader Evangelos Venizelos but not the questions he was asked.
“If we had been aware there would be such a surge in their popularity, we would have been on them a lot more, a lot earlier,” Nikos Konstandaras, Kathimerini’s managing editor, said of Syriza.