This article is part of IPI’s series “Media freedom in the shadow of Covid“.

During the lockdown that followed the Covid-19 outbreak, the Greek government allocated €20 million to media outlets for them to carry “Stay at Home” public health messages. It outsourced the distribution of these funds to a private media shop company, thereby bypassing its obligation to make public all transactions conducted by the state, as well as the Online Media Registry (where online media have to be registered in order to receive advertising revenue from the state).

Opposition parties protested the lack of transparency, while parliamentary watchdog Vouliwatch filed an FOI request, and a few opposition media outlets pushed for disclosure. The government initially responded by publishing the names of outlets that had been funded, but without the amounts that had been allocated.

The list was found, amongst others, to include non-existent news websites. A social media furor erupted. So in early July, the government finally released the so-called “Petsas list” — named after government spokesperson Stelios Petsas — featuring all media outlets alongside the allocated sums. The list confirmed what many suspected: that the funds had been disbursed in a way that was closely aligned to the government’s agenda. Outlets critical of the government seemingly received less than 1 percent of the total sum, while neutral media received significantly less than their less popular, but aggressively pro-government, counterparts. One particularly vocal anti-government outlet was excluded outright from the funding.

The government has still not clarified what criteria were employed to determine the beneficiaries or the amounts allocated. An additional FOI request by Vouliwatch, inquiring on the precise selection criteria, has to date gone unanswered.

A deeper problem

The “Petsas list” incident is quite singular in its disdain for transparency. But it is also indicative of a deeper and persistent problem.

Media in Greece rank among the least trusted by the public, compared to other countries in Europe. This fact, however, is not reflected in the ongoing international discussion about the challenges faced by the media around the world. On the contrary, it seems that Greek media are by and large regarded internationally as acceptable for the standards of a functioning democracy. This is a misconception.

It is true that media in Greece don’t face overt authoritarian intervention from the part of governments (exempting, of course, the notorious government decision in 2013 to shut down ERT, the public broadcaster), as is the case in some Eastern European countries. But a combination of ownership issues, drastic cuts in costs and jobs, and a peculiar — to put it mildly — relationship to political power, has produced a deeply problematic media landscape, where unbiased, dispassionate coverage is hard to find. What is more, the debasement of the news industry in Greece is happening against little resistance, either from public watchdog mechanisms, which are powerless or non-existent or from independent, alternative media, which are few and lack support.

Greek media have been historically partisan: Cases of publishers and journalists favouring specific politicians, or unequivocally supporting policies that benefited media owners, were frequent, and the revolving doors between journalism and politics were always spinning. Still, these affiliations were not water-tight and were expressed in more varied and nuanced ways. It was not uncommon for outlets to criticise their political affiliates. Their rosters of opinion writers were far more diverse. And the differences between sensationalist media that habitually eulogised their chosen politicians and demonised opponents, and esteemed media that represented particular political camps in a wider sense, were notable. The situation was not ideal, but it was far better.

After 2010 and the deepening of the Greek debt crisis, many things happened at the same time. The historical adversaries in the two-party system, PASOK and New Democracy, joined forces to implement an austerity programme. Simultaneously, a great number of media businesses collapsed, having no recourse to questionable bank loans they had access to in previous years. Some changed ownership, as older players were pushed out and new players appeared. With few exceptions, most of the media outlets that gradually emerged found themselves supporting what was by now one and the same political agenda.

The SYRIZA era

SYRIZA rode the wave of protests and public disaffection with austerity all the way from becoming the major opposition in 2012 to taking power in 2015. Having been a small party before being propelled to government, it had virtually no allies in the major news media, and the support that it enjoyed along the way came from limited, and at times unlikely, sources, such as a popular comedy show on TV, some sensationalist websites, a few small-scale, alternative outlets, and its own, party-owned media whose reach remained negligible. The only outlet to emerge from the crisis that supported SYRIZA and managed to both enter the mainstream and uphold a standard of relative independence was Efimerida ton Syntakton, a daily newspaper published by a cooperative of journalists and employees, including many from the once celebrated moderate leftist Eleftherotypia newspaper, which had collapsed in 2011.

Even before, and certainly after it took power, it was clear that SYRIZA — or at least its leading faction — intended to forge its own affiliations with the media, along the lines of the pre-existing model. However, its brief rapprochement with shipping magnate and football club owner Vangelis Marinakis fell through, when new legislation to regulate the licensing of TV stations was overturned by the Council of State, and Marinakis failed to secure a license. Other efforts, like Russian-Greek businessman Ivan Savvidis’s foray into publishing, did not succeed either in attracting a sizable audience or in becoming financially viable. The only effort that has remained afloat to date is Documento newspaper, a 2016 joint venture between Kostas Vaxevanis, a veteran investigative reporter, and Christos Kalogritsas, a medium-calibre businessman with ties to SYRIZA. After Kalogritsas’s departure, and falling-out with SYRIZA, six months after the launch, Documento became, under Vaxevanis’s sole leadership, the most vocal and aggressive SYRIZA supporter in the media — which explains why it was singled out for exclusion from the “Petsas list”.

The overwhelming majority of media were pro-New Democracy before 2015, staunchly anti-SYRIZA between 2015 and 2019, and are solidly pro-government today, including media owned by Marinakis (who gradually amassed two major newspapers, To Vima and Ta Nea; a popular news website, in.gr; and a TV station, Mega Channel), the Alafouzos family (SKAI TV and radio, and Kathimerini newspaper), and the Vardinogiannis family, which now owns two out of six national TV channels. Alongside the solid support the government enjoys by the country’s leading tabloid newspaper, Proto Thema, there is little space left for any criticisms in mainstream discourse. ERT, the public broadcaster, is now run by the prime minister’s former press officer, and there have been allegations about stories critical of the government being censored.

Post-Covid questions

With the Parliament essentially suspended during lockdown and news coverage massively overtaken by developments regarding Covid-19 (which had its own flaws), the partisanship of Greek media played out even more intensely. Stories about government contracts that were handed out in less than clear circumstances were featured only in a handful of independent, alternative outlets. Scrutiny over how the government would meet the challenge of building up a public healthcare system devastated by years of cuts was likewise absent from the majority of the media. Questions over the government’s implementation of safety protocols for travelers from abroad were largely unasked. Even a recent outbreak of wildfires was almost completely uncovered by major TV stations, with only a few opposition outlets inquiring into the adequacy of the government’s response.

SYRIZA’s efforts to even the playing field notwithstanding, it should be obvious that the main problem with this situation is not that partisanship and bias are not equally apportioned between political opponents. It is rather that the crisis exacerbated the partisanship already prevalent in the media landscape, so that by now most of the mainstream news that is published will inescapably be “customised” to support a particular party agenda.

The resulting decline in the quality of news should be at least addressed by watchdogs that would safeguard ethical standards. But there just aren’t any. Journalist unions, discredited by their failure to protect jobs during the crisis, use their disciplinary procedures haphazardly, and in any case cannot do anything about the great number of journalists who are not their members. ESR, the supervising authority on broadcasting and radio, only rarely issues fines, which are often completely unrelated to news, and does not ever address systemic problems. And there is no similar authority at all to oversee ethics in print and online media.

One might say that the ones that should first and foremost resist this state of affairs are journalists. That’s true, but one should also consider that ten years of lay-offs and thousands of lost jobs, steadily declining numbers in both audience and revenue, and most overworked and underpaid journalists continually witnessing partisanship and bias rewarded by publishers, have taken their toll.

Resistance is all but squeezed out of Greek journalism. There are some, fewer in mainstream media, more in small independent outlets and teams, who strive to produce journalism in the public interest. An international discussion about media challenges that ignores the Greek media predicament is not helping them.

The Manifold is an investigative outfit with members in Athens, Nicosia and London. They run The Manifold Files.