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The Disappearance of Greece's Fourth Estate

BY Lisa Goldman | Tuesday, June 18 2013

Athens anti-austerity demo, May 2010 (flickr/Monika.Monika)

On June 11 the Greek government abruptly announced the immediate closure of the country's state-owned public broadcasting company, ERT (Hellenic Radio and Television), in what they said was a cost-cutting measure to satisfy Greece's creditors. The move, which came with no prior discussion, puts 2,750 people out of work, in a country with an official unemployment rate that is nearly 27 percent. It also makes Greece the only European Union member state without a public broadcasting service.

The government's announcement attracted international media coverage and caused a national furor in a country already battered by its ongoing economic crisis. The Economist claims that ERT was packed with political appointees who received unmerited large salaries, but even those who agree with the assessment that the public broadcaster mismanaged funds call for restructuring rather than just cutting off the broadcaster's signal.

ERT employees defied police orders to vacate the broadcasting headquarters in suburban Athens. The government has cut their signal, but ERT staffers continue to broadcast on the Internet, streaming via the Geneva-based European Broadcasting Union (EBU) website, even as thousands of supporters rally outside ERT headquarters. Greeks on Twitter have been providing a running commentary, tagged #ERT. The hashtag was particularly active when an ERT symphony violinist was shown in closeup crying as she played during a solidarity / farewell performance of "Nimrod" from Elgar's Enigma Variations.

An independent media outlet

Amidst this high drama, one Greek media outlet has been providing continuous coverage of the ERT crisis that stands out with its intelligence, clarity and attention to detail.

Radio Bubble, an Athens-based citizen journalism community, has been publishing 'round-the-clock live updates, in-depth analysis, aggregated links to foreign media coverage and radio podcasts on its multi-lingual website. RB's volunteers discovered and published, for example, a document showing that the order to close ERT came from Greece's creditors — the European Commission, the European Central Bank and IMF — which stipulated that at least 2,000 public sector employees would have to be fired in June to fulfill cost-cutting requirements. Radio Bubble published the scanned document on its website, even as the European Commission denied any involvement in the decision to shut down ERT. The New York Times confirmed the story several days later.

The in-depth reports on Radio Bubble's website are supplemented with frequent updates on Twitter, via their dedicated account @radiobubblenews or, more frequently, via various contributors who use the tag #rbnews. Volunteers monitor the hashtag and verify reports, particularly if they come from outsiders. According to contributor Theodora Oikonomides (@IrateGreek), it is the now the second-most popular hashtag in Greece.

A volunteer like all the 70-odd contributors, Oikonomides joined Radio Bubble in 2011, four years after it was established in a cafe in downtown Athens. Speaking with techPresident via Skype in flawless English, which she speaks in addition to French and her native Greek, the 39 year-old former international aid worker sketched out a sobering picture of her country's media crisis.

“The closure [of ERT] means the only media group that had a semblance of pluralism and substantial cultural broadcasts is gone,” she said. In an earlier interview, Oikonomides said, “Greece effectively has no fourth estate. It has the least free media in the European Union.”

Corruption and the fourth estate

International media watchdogs and think tanks have done the research to support Oikonomides's assessment. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) now ranks Greece at number 84 on its Press Freedom Index, below non-democratic states like Kuwait and the Central African Republic. Describing Greece's "dramatic decline" as "very disturbing," RSF notes that it ranked Greece at number 39 just four years ago, in 2009.

Freedom House has demoted Greece from “Free” to “Partly Free,” citing increased police and government intimidation of the press. Amnesty International, too, includes a section on violent intimidation of the press in its recent special report on police violence in Greece. In December, Transparency International named Greece as the most corrupt country in the European Union.
There is wide agreement amongst analysts that Greece's disturbing decline in media freedom is seriously exacerbated by its culture of corruption, which in turn contributed directly to the country's sovereign debt crisis. Corruption, the debt crisis and the decline in media freedom are inextricably linked.

The key sectors of Greece's economy — banking, construction and shipping — have for years been controlled by a handful of wealthy families that are usually referred to as oligarchs. These families have a crony-capitalist relationship with the politicians, who often pass mutually beneficial legislation. Reuters journalist Stephen Grey wrote an extensive investigative report about Piraeus Bank, whose director Michalis Sallas, together with his wife and two children, made millions from secret bank-financed real estate loans. Greece's lack of transparency laws allowed Sallas to hide the deals from bank shareholders.

The oligarchs and the political class also control nearly the entire private media sector. While Greece's economy teeters on the brink of total collapse, which would drag the EU even further into crisis, the government and the oligarchs lean on local journalists to refrain from publishing stories that highlight their dubious dealings, like tax evasion or crony-capitalist deals. And the journalists comply, rather than risk becoming unemployment statistics or even being arrested, as in the case of one editor who published the name of a politician's wife.

On trial for reporting the facts

One journalist who dared to take on the oligarchs is now paying the price. Kostas Vaxevanis, editor of the bi-monthly anti-corruption magazine Hot Doc, published the names of over 2,000 wealthy Greek citizens who have Swiss bank accounts and are suspected of tax evasion. The Lagarde List is so named because IMF head Christine Lagarde handed it over to Greek politicians in 2010, shortly after Greece requested a financial bailout. But the Greek officials did not investigate the matter and even took steps to cover it up, over a period of two years. Finally Vaxevanis published the list, which got him into a lot of legal hot water.

Arrested on charges of violating privacy laws, Vaxevanis was brought before a judge the day he published the list in October 2012. He was acquitted the same day. But prosecutors, in an almost unprecedented move, insisted upon and were granted a retrial, claiming they had not yet brought all the evidence against Vaxevanis. The second trial has been postponed from its June 10 date to October.

Meanwhile, Vaxevanis has spoken out extensively about what he calls the government's selective prosecution, writing impassioned op-eds for the New York Times and Open Democracy, amongst other publications. Most recently he wrote an open letter to EU President Jose Manuel Barroso that was published on The Guardian's website. In the letter, Vaxevanis vows he will go to prison if convicted rather than appeal. This, he writes is “the only way” to show what is happening in Greece.

Radio Bubble has followed the Vaxevanis case carefully, posting in-depth, heavily researched reports about his case in particular, and Greece's rapidly declining press freedom in general.

For her June 8 weekly English-language radio show podcast for international audiences, Oikonomides presents the Vaxevanis case as Exhibit A in a 90-minute program dedicated to the rapid disappearance of an independent fourth estate in Greece. She interviews the Hot Doc editor, the local representative for RSF and the head of the Athens Daily Newspaper Editors’ Union, amongst other media professionals. All provide sobering statistics and anecdotes about intimidation tactics used by the Greek government and police against journalists. One journalist describes being beaten by police as she reported on a demonstration, while the head of the photojournalists' union says it is now common practice for the police to beat and arrest reporters holding cameras at leftist and anti-fascist political rallies. The RSF representative summarizes the situation with the comment that in Greece there is really no such thing as press freedom these days.

The Hackademy: Teaching citizen journalism

Vasilis*, 29, joined the Radio Bubble community two years ago. Formerly employed by one of Greece's leading private television stations, Vasilis, who also speaks fluent English, told techPresident via Skype that he had worked primarily abroad, doing feature reporting. Laid off from his television job, he said he now invests his considerable professional energy in Radio Bubble. In addition to his weekly radio show, which he wryly calls “Low Self Esteem,” Vasilis is a recent graduate of Radio Bubble's “hackademy,” a course that teaches digital and citizen media skills.

Run out of the Athens cafe that hosts Radio Bubble, the hackademy provides in-depth training in citizen journalism skills — e.g., how to film reports and interviews with a smartphone and edit them on a laptop, how to use social media platforms like Twitter for real-time reporting and how to verify information. Vasilis said that the training he received there “helped [him] regarding the technological means involved available to ordinary citizens, giving them the opportunity to become citizen journalists.” He added, “There are so many means of reporting under-reported stories that are constantly ignored by corporate news.”

Vasilis described a hackademy teaching exercise that involved being sent out to cover an anti-fascist rally in downtown Athens, which he said was otherwise ignored by the media.

“We were separated into teams and assigned tasks. We interviewed people, observed events and tweeted live reports using the #hackademy hashtag. The team that was back in the classroom received the photos and videos that we uploaded via our smartphones, verified information when necessary, and ran a live-blogging event from the hackademy.” Vasilis summarized, “We created a digital news room.”

Who's listening?

But while Radio Bubble's coverage is admirably thorough and professional, particularly for a media outlet that is run on donations and volunteer labor, who is it reaching and does it have any impact?

Greece has a population of about 10 million, but Internet penetration is quite low for an EU state, at an average of only 47 percent, with a decline of about 13 percent in non-urban areas. As for social media use, Vasilis says there are only about 200,000 Twitter users in Greece. “Greeks are relatively late adopters of social media,” he said.

But some of those late adapters have become avid users. These include government officials who use the platform to attack Radio Bubble contributors in blunt, sometimes threatening language. Vasilis forwarded screenshots of a few tweets, with accompanying translations from the Greek. What they reveal is a polarized political discourse, not to mention public figures who refer to activists as "fools," "dirty," and "communists." According to Vasilis, members of parliament and government officials on Twitter regularly engage directly with progressive activists, issuing insults and threats.

Vasilis also mentioned blogs that are run by communications teams who work for wealthy families or for the ruling rightist New Democracy Party. One blog, Dexiextrem, which he said is run anonymously by the prime minister's communications staff ("they have never denied it"), regularly publishes personal attacks against political activists and journalists, describing them with terms like “dirty” and “stinky” and accusing them of hating or being traitors to Greece.

So it appears that some politicians do follow Radio Bubble and consider its message sufficiently subversive to merit a response.

Meanwhile, Radio Bubble is being noticed and cited by reporters for prominent media outlets like The Guardian and The Atlantic.

Eliminating the filter

Radio Bubble publishes its reports in eight languages, often translating them from the original Greek. Oikonomides says they want to reach the Greek diaspora, which “used to be very conservative.”

“But my impression is that this is changing,” she said, adding “As a community, they have an influence on what happens in Greece.”

RB also wants to reach out to non-Greeks.

“We are not happy with the foreign media's coverage,” said Oikonomides, “We want to eliminate the filter and report directly to foreign audiences.” She offered several examples of inaccurate coverage in the international media.

“The foreign media reported that 50 percent of Greek police officers voted for the Golden Dawn (the neo-Nazi party), which is simply not true. This was true only for police in Athens. A lot of these reports come from terrible Greek newspapers, which are translated by one journalist in France and then picked up by the international media, which does not verify anything.”

She continued, “Another thing I'm not happy with is the way the foreign media presents the current prime minister [Antonis Samaras] as a normal right-of-center politician. In fact he is very far right. He has lifted sentences from the Golden Dawn's manifesto. This is something that has to be reported! It is not acceptable to me that foreign governments encourage Greeks to vote for a quasi fascist party, claiming it will save the economy.”

The Golden Dawn party issued an official statement announcing its full support for Prime Minister Samaras's decision to close down ERT.

It was Samaras who appointed Emilios Liatsos, formerly of the privately owned Star TV, to head ERT shortly before the government ordered it shut down. A Greek media watchdog reported that almost as soon as he took over Liatsos began to censor ERT's news reports. Star TV is notorious for its almost farcical vulgarity. Its prime time news weather report, for example, is delivered in a breathy voice by a bathing suit clad blonde who seems to be looking for a pole to swing around.

Oikonomides' and Vasilis' descriptions of Greece's media and political sectors sounded almost too dire to believe. Politicians who threaten journalists on Twitter, police who beat and arrest reporters as they go about their jobs, journalists who engage in blatant self-censorship and oligarchs who impose editorial agendas to promote their own nefarious interests? This sounds like a scenario one would expect in an authoritarian state. But Greece is purportedly a democracy, and a member of the EU. Perhaps, I thought, these were slightly exaggerated descriptions coming from a minority of highly educated, idealistic journalists whose assessment is refracted through the lens of their left-progressive political views.

But this does not seem to be the case. Academics and experts confirm in papers written under the auspices of prominent institutions like the London School of Economics that their analysis of the situation in Greece is the same as that presented by the Radio Bubble journalists. There does not seem to be any credible source disputing the assertion that mainstream newspapers promote the interests of the oligarchs who own them, or that oligarchs pay people to maintain blogs that promote their agenda and attack opponents, with the blogs presented as straight news sources.

Radio Bubble is on a mission to spread the gospel of free media and critical reporting. They want to expand the hackademy courses to train more citizen journalists, increase their feature reporting and reach out to people with limited Internet access via a printer-friendly newsletter that can be distributed and shared. To help defray these expenses they have launched a indiegogo campaign to raise $50,000.

“We are trying to explain,” said Oikonomides, “that this is not just an economic crisis. This is a political crisis too. The third largest party in the next parliament is going to be a neo-Nazi party. That is a very big problem for Europe. The highest proportion of voters say they don't want to vote for anybody. There is a total lack of trust in the idea that we can solve our problems through democracy.”

Radio Bubble believes that if the people are better informed by a trustworthy source, they will have the tools to demand the changes Greece needs. Without drastic, immediate action, said Oikonomides, “A Weimar scenario is possible.”

It is unrealistic to expect that a small group of unpaid citizen journalists will successfully push back against the massive commercial media outlets that currently control the discourse, but without any kind of independent voice coming out of Greece, the situation will surely become untenable. Now with the impending closure of ERT (which has been delayed due to a court order), Radio Bubble's mission seems more urgent than ever.

*Surname redacted at the journalist's request.

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