On January 13th 2017, the Greek Council of State published its decision which found that the law on which the Greek government auction for the television licenses was based contravenes Greece’s Constitution.
According to the decision, the law, brought by former State Minister Nikos Pappas, was against Article 15 of the Constitution. The Council of State, which is the country’s highest administrative court, had reached the decision in October with a majority of 14 to 11. Meanwhile, in his comments, the Minister for Digital Policy said that TV channels would have to pay a fee for temporary licenses until a new tender is organized, this time by the National Broadcasting Council (ESR).
The story of the TV licensing procedure is very long. When SYRIZA (the leftwing party) won the elections of 2015 and formed a coalition government with the extreme right party, ANEL, they decided to give a definitive solution to this matter and to regulate the audiovisual sector appropriately. In May 2015, the Greek State Minister (then, now Minister of Digital Policy, Telecommunications and Information) Nikos Pappas stated that the broadcasting licenses would be given to the TV channels by the end of June 2015. The already existing (since the launch of private television in Greece in 1990) temporary regulatory framework was unstable. The main private TV channels have been operating in Greece with temporary licenses provided by the Greek Parliament in 1989 and extended since then either by law or by ministerial decisions. In autumn 2015, the Greek parliament approved a new media bill providing a license procedure through an international tender, conducted by the National Council for Radio and Television (ESR).
Since then, a whole year has passed and the audiovisual sector not only was not regulated but it was totally deregulated. Despite the definition in the Greek Constitution (article 15) of the National Council for Radio and Television as the independent administrative authority exclusively charged with supervising and regulating the radio/television market, it was the governmental majority which decided on the number of the licenses that would be sold through auctioning and the terms and conditions of the auction. After an unsuccessful attempt to convene the National Council for Radio and Television it was stipulated through an amendment that the parliamentary majority would decide on the number of the licenses and that the Minister of the State would be the only person in charge to organise the auction and to announce the competition.
In 2016 the governmental majority limited the number of distributed licenses to four and this decision raised questions about the safeguarding of media pluralism. When asked why there would be only four licenses, given that there are eight national private TV channels, the Minister of the State answered that this number would ensure TV channels of a better definition, that it would allow only sustainable TV channels to continue and that it would constitute a blow against interweaving (between politicians and TV channel owners).
These legislative reforms raised changes both at national and European level. The European Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society sent a Letter of Formal Notice to Greece expressing concerns about these legislative changes in the telecoms sector. The Commissioner indicated his intension to intervene in case it should become apparent that the TV licensing procedure violated EU legislation on media pluralism, press freedoms and the independence of the national audiovisual regulator.
In this “regulative operation” of the audiovisual field, only 8 channels remained and took part in a parody competition, where everybody knew that it was unconstitutional and would be repealed. After three days of continuous and exhaustive bidding on camera, the winners of the four licenses were determined and the Greek state made a profit of 246 million euro. The other four nationwide private TV channels which did not manage to be granted a license were supposed to operate for ninety more days and then their signal would be disrupted adding more than 2,000 people to the already vast army of unemployed (the declared number reaches ca.1,115,000 people out of 11 million. The majority of unemployed people is not officially declared). At the same time all nationwide private TV channels brought a case against the Greek government before the Hellenic Council of the State asking the Supreme Administrative Court in Greece to recognise the unconstitutionality of the law regarding the national TV licensing process. The Supreme Administrative Court was supposed to convene on Friday, 30 September 2016, but the consultation was cancelled by its president because of the prevailing atmosphere that supposedly did not allow the judges to perform their duties properly. The new plenary session was due for the beginning of 2017.
After much discussion, the Hellenic Council of State ruled with a 14-11 vote that the controversial television licensing law conflicts with the Constitution. As a result of the State Council’s decision, the existing channels which have been broadcasting with temporary licenses will continue to broadcast, while the two new channels to emerge from the recent tender are left without a license. The license fees collected by the government following the recent tender will also be reimbursed.
The issue is that nobody knows what the real situation in the field of Greek television is and what the future of Greek private TV will be. And the fact is that those who “pay the bill” are the viewers and the TV channels’ employees. To put it briefly, the Greek government blew up the audiovisual market just because TV channels did not serve its interests. All the other claims are just a fake narrative that served multiple and convergent expediencies. Expediencies -of all those who intended to politically control the information process and the news flow. Expediencies of all those who politically invest in the “battle” against interweaving. Expediencies of all those who are in favour of a closed audiovisual market with less competition in order to gain profits. Expediencies of all those who wanted to intervene in the audiovisual field.
The basic argument of the Greek government as far as the core issue of the TV licenses is concerned is that for 27 years the Greek TV private channels broadcast totally free, without paying any fee. But this argument is absolutely inaccurate. The private Greek television channels have functioned as legally established enterprises, paying their taxes, their employees’ wages, the fee for the frequency use and all the costs that an enterprise has. But what is absolutely true is that the Greek private TV channels transmitted their programme without having permanent licenses and that affected their transparency and objectivity.
What is certain is that the TV licensing issue in Greece has not yet been resolved. It is still pending. The adequate solution, in order for the audiovisual field to be regulated, is to let the National Broadcasting Council do its job properly, according to its duties, as set by the Hellenic Constitution, regarding the process of the television licensing, and thus safeguarding the freedom of the press and the pluralism, without the intervention of each government.
Katerina Serafeim holds a PhD in Journalism and Mass Media, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, and is a journalist in the Press Office of the Regional Local Government of Central Macedonia,Greece. She can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org