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Monday, 22 February 2021

Media in Greece: Free or dependent?

The online seminar ‘Media in Greece: Free or dependent?’ on 17 of February 2021 focussed on the character and nature of Greek media, within the wider context of the Hilary Term seminar series on the quality of democracy in Southeast Europe. It was chaired by Tim Vlandas, Associate Professor of Comparative Social Policy in the Department of Social Policy and Intervention. Othon Anastasakis, Director of SEESOX, in introducing the seminar, commented on the fact that media issues seem to be ubiquitous when we talk about the quality of democracy in SE Europe; examples include media repression in Turkey, or a very strong executive control, fake news, or misinformation elsewhere. He pointed out that the Greek case is a hybrid experience of a long tradition of free speech, with at the same time many connected interests and linkages between the state and the media landscape. 

The first speaker, Lamprini Rori, Lecturer in Politics at the University of Exeter and Jean Monnet fellow at the EUI, stressed that there is no absolute answer to the question; the media in Greece are neither completely free, nor completely dependent and like in most countries, there is a dynamic interdependence between politics and media. This relationship is reciprocal, the particular equilibrium of which defines three factors: media freedom, the quality of journalism and the quality of the political class. The arguments in her presentation drew on primary research and the comparative data she put forward, looked at perceptions on media freedom. She argued that there is a lack of trust in traditional media, and more people compared to other countries use digital media; when it comes to information, Greeks prefer online rather than offline media. The reasons for this distrust relate to political and commercial biases, the poor quality of journalism, the perceived notion that social media give a broad spectrum of political views, and that social networks have a self-correcting capacity. She then focussed on systemic and institutional parameters, like polarised pluralism - strong state, weak civil society, clientelism, lack of clarity of the legal framework, media-political parallelism -, state paternalism and mediatisation of political life.

The effects of this situation are demonstrated by an inflated media sector out of proportion with demand, increased political influence of the press, state subsidies as instruments for silencing media outlets, job insecurity and low salaries, and self-censorship. She argued that the financial crisis in 2010 revealed the weaknesses of the Greek media market. There had been low liquidity for bank loans to the media, instability in the relationship between the media and political entrepreneurs, and a consequent negative impact on journalism. Other repercussions had been citizens’ alienation from mainstream media, production cost reductions hitting salaries, precarious (freelance) contracts, long delays in payments and rising unemployment, and a shrinking legacy by journalists, impacting on the quality of information. The political impact of the crisis on the media landscape is reflected in new divisions that produced distinct camps in society, politics/populism, radicalisation, the electoral rise of radical and extremist parties, increased fragmentation, polarisation, and political violence. She concluded that the relationship between the media and political entrepreneurs is reciprocal, and its equilibrium has shifted over time, with journalism becoming less influential and the public preferring online political information.

The second speaker, Roman Gerodimos, Associate Professor of Global Current Affairs in the Faculty of Media and Communication, at Bournemouth University, focussed on the paradox of press freedom in Greece, where on the one hand there is apparent liberty to freely express opinions even to the point of using offensive or libellous language (shown by the existence of a yellow press, libellous personal attacks on celebrities, and cultural resistance to notions of political correctness), while on the other hand the country scores very low among EU members in terms of press freedom. He questioned whether these surveys give the full picture however, as people’s perceptions are not the same thing as objective structural limitations. Surveys of journalists or of the public cannot be the only source for judging press freedom; other aspects make the picture more complicated, like general feelings of trust in the system. Other connected issues are a history of political violence (threats from organised crime or far right/far left groups), a weak regulatory system, ownership structures and conflicts of interest, and government pressure (state advertising revenue (direct), handout and access (indirect)). He gave examples from the UK, where both the courts and the government have the power to stop certain stories from being published, arguing that restrictions to press freedom (for example on issues that would harm national security) are common to many countries. He added that the media system in Greece is very pluralistic, there is a lot of quality content, and that there are numerous examples and pockets of good practice (e.g. some Sunday newspapers and radio programmes). The Greek system is quite porous, with barriers to entry for journalists not impenetrable in terms of class or educational background. Still, the structural weaknesses of the Greek system mean that it is hard to produce and support investigative journalism that would act as a strong fourth estate. Also, he highlighted conflicts of interest, copyright infringements and endemic plagiarism, alongside physical threats and indirect pressures. He saw investigative journalism as a foundational pillar of media, and added that, in the past, there used to be more such programmes on Greek TV. Due to the financial crisis and the emergence of online news (drop in sales and advertising income), the quality of investigative journalism on Greek TV has sharply declined. Among the barriers to a culture of investigative journalism, he noted the difficulty of getting credible facts, a lack of organisational culture (teams and resources), interventions and pressures mostly from business interests, the fact that the public is not prepared to pay for this service, and lack of media literacy (people unable to distinguish rumour/fake news from serious investigative reports). He concluded by stressing the point that there are both country specific and more global factors affecting opportunities and barriers for journalists. He spoke of journalists’ safety, and the role of social media (like Facebook and Twitter), which make it more difficult for journalists to reach their audiences. In his view, cacophony does not equate to freedom and, while Greece has gone through a difficult decade that hit its media system, it faces problems common to many countries.

Stathis Kalyvas, Gladstone Professor of Government at the University of Oxford, who acted as a discussant to the panel, commented on the complexity of the picture and of the reality of Greek media which defies superficial descriptions. Summarising the presentations by the two speakers, he pointed out that, although the Greek media are not as good as we wish them to be, they also are not as terrible as we fear or believe. He also questioned Greece’s global ranking and went on to reflect on the position of media in advanced democratic systems, raising two interrelated questions: a) whether we believe that democracies can function in the absence of fully free, consistently high quality media and b) how we think that democracies might nevertheless perform their fundamental functions under such conditions. Using examples from the US and the UK, he argued that democracies can function with media that are “good enough”—and, indeed, that’s how they have functioned so far.

The discussion in the Q&A session revolved around the future of Greek media, the accuracy of media freedom rankings, the international dimension, and the triangular relationship between media, business and politics. It was suggested that it is not realistic to talk about cutting links between media and business. With regard to the structure and ownership of the Greek media, there are many things to be done in the national system, like for example improving and smoothing the process of the regulatory system. Finally, looking at the Greek media landscape in general, examples like improving the quality of news, the public broadcaster, and controls, and tackling plagiarism were mentioned.

Foteini Kalantzi (A. G. Leventis Research Officer at SEESOX)

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