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.
Government influence on the media can be subtle. All nine of Greece’s nationwide television channels operate year-to-year without paying license fees, said Pleios, who directs an institute that studies the nation’s television media.
“They depend on the goodwill of the government,” Pleios said. “It is a means to control the television landscape.”
The lack of licenses amounts to a government subsidy, but the official largesse doesn’t stop there. The Greek state also buys TV advertising and radio as well as print outlets in a non-transparent manner and contracts with other enterprises owned by the same industrial or shipping magnates, Pleios said. He calls it “diaploki,” a Greek word meaning intertwining interests.
“The media…win support for political leaders. In exchange they give public works contracts to the mother companies,” he said. “It’s a kind of high-level corruption between the state and the companies. Formally, it’s legal.”
Vassilis Mulopoulos, Syriza’s head of communications, used the same term to describe cronyism among media, political and business interests. He cited a major industrialist whose media support the government in power and whose construction interests obtain most of the major infrastructure projects.
“There are severe limitations in press freedom,” Mulopoulos said. “We understand the role the media plays in society in the Anglo-Saxon world. In Greece the situation is quite the contrary. Here information and opinion are often misrepresented or misused.”
Mulopoulos has inside experience. He was editor-in-chief of the newspaper To Vima for five years before becoming a member of parliament from 2009 until last month.
At Kathimerini – which co-publishes the New York Times-owned International Herald Tribune with its own English edition – editors acknowledge the thrust of Mulopoulos’ charges.
“The game of influence between politics, business and the media is very much a part of our system here,” Konstandaras said. He said a common model for newspapers is: “I press for government contracts and state advertising; in exchange I promote some people and I don’t promote others.” He said his paper is an exception because owner Aristides Alafuzo, a shipping magnate, has no business interests in Greece.
But Mulopoulos said that when Alafuzos’s son, Ionnis, was on trial in the mid-1990s for oil-smuggling, the then leader of New Democracy, Miltiades Everts, testified on his behalf. After a lengthy judicial proceeding, Alafuzos was acquitted.
In its worldwide press freedom rankings, Freedom House, the New York-based non-governmental organization, ranks the Greek media as “free,” but in 65th place among nations, in a tie with Israel and at the edge of being “partly free.” It cited self-censorship on sensitive ethnic issues, police attacks on journalists and the difficulty of sustaining media in the current economic downturn. It did not address the internal political links, which add to government’s enormous influence.
There are other topics the Greek television deals with gingerly, if at all, including shipping accidents, the country’s Muslim minority and right-wing violence committed against illegal immigrants, Pleios said.
Konstandaras said in the 14 years he’d been with Kathimerini, he could not recall a case of failing to report news about the owner having trouble in another sector of his holdings.
“If you ignore it, others will not,” he said. “I don’t think our readers have been deprived.”
But there’s also a different kind of influence, brought about in part by the interests of the owners’ firms and the fact many reporters moonlight by working for their sources – including the government, according to Mulopoulos, the Syriza official. Whenever there’s a military purchase, media groups advocate an outcome “according to the interests of their owners and contacts with specific economic interests,” he said. Journalists received money to advocate state purchases during the 2004 Olympic Games and during the construction of the Athens subway system.
Whether it comes to power after Sunday’s election or becomes the main opposition group, Syriza says it will press to establish a new media framework. It would require greater transparency in media ownership and demand TV and radio stations be licensed through a competitive bidding process in which applicants must demonstrate economic viability. It has also called for guaranteeing labor rights for journalists to ensure their independence and for transparency in state advertising, which Mulopoulos says is now the main source of income for media.
Earlier this month, Mulopoulos called in political reporters earlier this month to demand that they “observe the rules” – not demanding friendly coverage, he later told McClatchy, but calling for fair reporting. His remarks, which might have stirred controversy in other countries, weren’t reported in the media the next day, according to an informal search.
Perhaps least controversial will be the ban on journalists receiving wages or subventions from the government. Mulopoulos estimated that 500 to 600 of the 20,000 Greek journalists are on some sort of government payroll, paid out of secret funds designated as serving “social purposes.” He said the ministries of defense, security and foreign affairs were among those paying journalists.
The Greek Foreign Ministry denied that it has a list of journalists being paid out of secret funds. “There are no funds going to any journalists,” a spokesman told McClatchy Friday. He provided McClatchy a ministry statement issued on Jan. 19 about “national funds of a confidential nature,” which said that since Nov. 11, “no disbursements of these funds have been approved.”
Konstandaris, of the newspaper Kathimerini, said he had no question the government had put reporters on a secret payroll, but described the payments not as a way to earn support for official policies but as personal favors.
As for journalists moonlighting by working for their sources, he said that has now diminished greatly.
“I found it very, very widespread, when I joined the Greek press,” said Konstandaris, who grew up in South Africa. “I was horrified. You would find someone working in the press office of the economy ministry working for a radio station as their reporter for the economy ministry.”
“That, I think, is dead,” he added. “I can’t speak for other newspapers. Here, when we started laying people off (during the economic crisis) the first to go were those with another job.”