The dispute over digital terrestrial television licensing in Greece: curiouser and curiouser

By Dr. Irini Katsirea

Reader in International Media Law, Centre for Freedom of the Media, Department of Journalism, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Sheffield

This Think Piece is a shorter version of an article that is forthcoming in the International Journal of Digital Television

Since launching 25 years ago, private television stations in Greece have operated under ‘temporary’ licences. The Council of State (the Supreme Administrative Court of Greece) held that the unlicensed operation of a station did not justify the award of a licence (Council of State 1997). The administration, however, tolerated or even abetted the operation of stations without a licence (Council of State 2010).[1] This uncontrolled introduction of commercial broadcasting in Greece, aptly characterised as ‘savage deregulation’, left an indelible mark on the Greek media scene (Hallin and Mancini 2004: 125; Leandros 2010: 891).[2]

Law 4339/2015, which was passed by the Greek Parliament on 24 October 2015, promised to put an end to this state of disorder by finally licensing digital terrestrial television (DTT) providers. However, once more, the new legislation proved extremely controversial, dividing government and opposition parties, and attracting strong criticism from commercial broadcasters, the Association of Commercial Television in Europe (ACT), the International and European Federations of Journalists (IFJ and EFJ) and their Greek affiliates. It was planned that only four ten-year licences would be granted through an auction held by the Secretariat General of Information and Communication. The main criticisms voiced against this arrangement were the following: firstly, that it bypassed the independent regulatory authority, the National Council for Radio and Television (Ethniko Symvoulio Radiotileorasis, ESR), and secondly, that the arbitrary limitation on the number of licences placed commercial television under the tutelage of the state and reduced pluralism.

The Greek government, on the other hand, contended that it was solely competent to regulate digital terrestrial television (DTT) licensing. The cynical reason put forward by the government for usurping the power to determine the number of available licences and to conduct the auction was ESR’s inability to act. ESR had been rendered defunct due to a disagreement between government and opposition on its composition. This feud had been triggered by the fact that the governmental majority refused to accept the opposition’s view that the number of licences should be decided by the ESR, not by the Parliament. Furthermore, the government argued that the Greek audiovisual market could not sustain more channels; that the new regime would put an end to corruption in the sector; that the magical number of licences, four, was based on a study conducted by the European University Institute (EUI) in Florence; and that the commitment for an international tender was part of the third EU bailout for Greece, signed in 2015 by the Greek Prime Minister (European University Institute 2016).[3]

The general outcry against the new licensing framework did not deter the government from conducting a public auction of just four licenses, which raised the amount of €246m (£206m). The government pledged to spend this amount on welfare policies. Only two of the existing broadcasters, Skai and Antenna, succeeded in obtaining a licence after a controversial procedure, which forced the representatives of the eight rival bidders to stay in isolation in a government building for 65 hours. Alpha TV, Star and two new bidders failed in their bids. A number of private broadcasters as well as the ΤV Station Owners’ Association applied to the Council of State, requesting the suspension of the licensing procedure. Τhe Council of State turned down the request. However, on 26 October 2016, the plenary session of the court decided that the new licensing law was unconstitutional given that ESR, not the government, should have been in charge of the licensing procedure. Τhis brave ruling paved the way for the achievement of a consensus on ESR’s composition, the annulment of the outcome of the recent auction and the compensation of the auction winners.

The new licensing regime is paradigmatic of a series of attempts made by successive Greek governments to utilise the spectre of uncontrollable and unaccountable media interests, a perception widely shared by the public, so as to resort to draconian, knee-jerk reactions: from the passage of the ill-fated ‘main shareholder’ laws of 2005 to the dramatic closure of the public service broadcaster, ERT, in 2013. Such ‘curiouser and curiouser’ attempts, possibly inspired by the political elite’s desire to mask its own lack of vision and fledgling legitimacy, remain ultimately unenforceable. They offer the vague promise of an escape route out of an unsatisfactory love hate relationship with the media, but only at a very high price: the destruction of trust in public life and the erosion of the country’s political fabric. If Greece is to prevent a further descend into this rabbit hole, a reconsideration and sincere articulation of the aims pursued by media regulation are urgently needed. Vesting the newly constituted, fragile independent regulatory authority with the necessary personnel and powers in accordance with EU and Council of Europe imperatives would be a start in the right direction.[4]

 

[1] Council of State (2010), Decision 3578/2010, <www.constitutionalism.gr/1871-leitoyrgia-tileoptikwn-statmwn-hwris-adeia/>.

[2] Hallin, D. and P. Mancini (2004), Comparing media systems. Three models of media and politics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Leandros, N. (2010), ‘Media concentration and systemic failures in Greece’, International Journal of Communication, 886-905.

[3] European University Institute (2016), Florence School of Regulation (FSR) Communications and Media, A Preparatory Study for the DTT Auction in Greece: Number of Licences and Reserve Place, <http://fsr.eui.eu/a-preparatory-study-on-dtt-auctions-in-greece/>.

[4] European Regulators Group for Audiovisual Media Services (ERGA) (2015), AVMS Radar final report. Audiovisual Media Services – Regulatory Authorities’ Independence and Efficiency Review, <file:///C:/Users/Irini%20Katsirea/Downloads/1RADARfinalreport.pdf>; Council of Europe (2008), Declaration of the Committee of Ministers on the independence and functions of regulatory authorities for the broadcasting sector, 26 March,

< http://merlin.obs.coe.int/iris/2008/5/article1.en.html>; Council of Europe (2000), Recommendation R (2000) 23 of the Committee of Ministers to member States on the independence and functions of regulatory authorities for the broadcasting sector, 20 December, <https://rm.coe.int/CoERMPublicCommonSearchServices/DisplayDCTMContent?documentId=09000016804e0322>.