Commodities: Greece Overhauls Licensing of Private TV Broadcasting

By Nektaria Stamouli 
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ATHENS–Greece’s parliament late on Saturday passed an overhaul of the country’s licensing system for private television, a reform the governing left-wing Syriza party sees as part of its quest to take on Greece’s business oligarchs.

The new legislation dictates, among other things, how TV broadcast licenses will be issued, for how long they would valid and when they can be revoked.

The bill was supported by a majority of Greece’s 300 lawmakers.

The new law calls for an auction for new 10-year licenses, expected next year, will exclude companies with tax arrears and those with other major public-sector contracts. The government says the latter provision will prevent media owners from applying political pressure, via their news coverage, to win public-works contracts.

The legislation also sets the cost of obtaining a license and a maximum number of employees that can be hired at each station depending upon the kind of programs the network broadcasts. News-heavy channels must pay more for licenses than purely entertainment channels.

The number of bids that will be accepted in the tender for the new 10-year broadcast licenses remains unclear. Government officials said that will depend on the quality of the offers made, but they indicated that after the auction there could be fewer privately-held TV channels than the existing eight that broadcast nationally.

Private television broadcasting in Greece was first launched 25 years ago, but the country hasn’t operated a licensing process until now, mainly because of political disputes over oversight rules. Since then, licenses have been “temporary” and issued on an ad hoc basis. Greece is the only European Union country that hasn’t conducted a formal auction of broadcast spectra.

Opposition parties have attacked the government over the bill, arguing that it gives too much power over Greece’s media sector to the minister who decides on the license bids, currently Nikos Pappas, a close aide to Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.

With most of Greece’s private media already substantially in debt and with advertising revenues shrinking, the broadcast industry fears investors will steer clear of the sector.

Greece’s largest journalist union ESIEA held a strike on Friday, halting news programs on private and state television. ESIEA said the bill “fails to safeguard the journalistic profession.”

After abandoning their plan to end austerity and succumbing to German-led pressure in a bailout deal in July, Mr. Tsipras and Syriza managed to get re-elected late September, promising to tackle the country’s chronic corruption.

Syriza has long taken rhetorical aim at the Greece’s media magnates, who it says have abused their control of the media for years by influencing governments and using that influence to enrich themselves through public-works contracts.

The mistrust between Syriza and Greece’s private media spilled over during July’s dramatic referendum on the austerity demands of Greece’s international creditors.

Most private media, from television to newspapers and magazines, have called Syriza’s economic policies unrealistic and have criticized its handling of talks with creditors. In the run-up to the referendum, they called for a “yes” vote on creditors’ bailout demands, while the government urged Greeks to vote “no.” The no vote won, but Mr. Tsipras soon signed a tough bailout deal with other eurozone governments anyway.

The government has been open in its campaign against Greece’s media barons, who, it alleges, have used their dominance of the airwaves and newsprint to amass undue power and wealth.

In April, prosecutors arrested Leonidas Bobolas, whose family business interests range from construction to media. The Bobolas family, under its patriarch Gerogios Bobolas, Leonidas’s father, is among Greece’s most prominent media families. Accused of tax evasion, Mr. Bobolas was later released after paying 1.8 million euros ($1.9 million) in back taxes.

Although media owners apparently are now being singled out, many Greeks say the country’s economy is concentrated in the hands of the few in other industries ranging from banking and oil refining to shipping.

Write to Nektaria Stamouli at