While Hungary and Poland dominate the discussion of democratic erosion in Europe, it is Greece that ranks last in media freedom among European Union member-states. Since the onset of the pandemic, the government has employed both carrots and sticks—funding friendly media and prosecuting alleged ‘fake news’—to undermine media independence. In a prime example of “stealth authoritarianism,” the Greek government is actively undermining media freedom and liberal democracy by altering the costs and benefits of engaging in truthful reporting.
Greece’s crisis of media freedom is occurring amid widespread public distrust of the media. According to the latest Eurobarometer study, 57% of Greeks believe that the media in their country does not provide trustworthy information. A whopping 81% percent believe that media information is not free from political or commercial pressure, the highest percentage in the EU.
The country’s media landscape looms large in the minds of distrustful Greek citizens. Media ownership in Greece is extremely concentrated; five all-encompassing media conglomerates—owned by successful businessmen—dominate mainstream media. These owners influence their outlets’ ideological stance and reporting, leading many journalists to self-censor. In the words of one editor: “Nobody has to tell you that you will never have a front-page that is against the ownership of the organization” (191). At the same time, to survive in a competitive media landscape, marked by many outlets and falling demand, many companies rely on influxes of private capital and state funding to survive. The Greek government has taken advantage of this situation to support pro-government media.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the state’s funding for public health messages during the COVID-19 pandemic. During the first months of the pandemic, the Greek government distributed €20 million to media outlets to broadcast “We Stay Home,” a campaign to increase citizen compliance with the nationwide lockdown. However, this process was far from transparent: According to the Greek Constitution, media outlets should broadcast public messages for free, which renders this funding redundant and excessive, especially given Greece’s current debt levels. Furthermore, the government bypassed a constitutional obligation to disclose all state transactions by subcontracting the funding program to a private media company. Only after opposition pressure did the government publish the names of receiving media outlets and the amount they received. This information in turn demonstrated that the allocation of funds was as problematic as the distribution process.
Funds were allocated using arbitrary criteria that strongly favored outlets with pro-government stances. Outlets critical of the administration received less than 1% of the total amount and some did not receive any funding at all despite the fact that many critical outlets have higher circulation than the pro-government press. The most notable case is that of Documento—the popular investigative newspaper was completely excluded from state funding, allegedly in retaliation for investigating the administration. Even neutral media received less funding than certain pro-government outlets, despite their large audience. Finally, out of the 1,232 recipients, more than 200 were digital entities not listed in Greece’s Online Media Registry, including blogs with insignificant readership, as well as non-existent websites.
The Greek government’s preferential treatment of friendly outlets not only encourages pro-government media to remain so but also implicitly pushes opposition voices to align themselves with the government. Greece’s competitive media landscape existed long before COVID-19; however, media outlets now face their “most difficult times ever” (178). By skewing the playing field, the government has altered the media’s incentive structure, potentially forcing the already small number of independent media outlets to choose between survival and truthful reporting. This strategy is not new. It closely resembles Turkish President Erdogan’s support of politically connected businessmen by awarding three-quarters of public procurement contracts to pro-government firms. Nevertheless, the Greek government’s strategy is still a cause for concern, as it threatens to drive opposing media out of existence.
Beyond using the pandemic to create carrots for the media, the government also used it to justify the adoption of a new, powerful stick for disciplining media: the fight against fake news. In November 2021, the Greek Parliament adopted a new provision in its criminal code that outlawed the spread of fake news. Article 191 of the criminal code targets anyone who spreads fake news that could cause “concern or fear to the public,” or undermine “public confidence in the national economy, the country’s defense capacity or public health.” Most worryingly, the statute is highly ambiguous, without a definition of fake news. The state can prosecute ‘fake news’ even if it does not cause actual harm and without establishing malice, unlike in other established democracies such as the United States. Article 191 also does not provide protections for freedom of speech or the need to respect it when the article is invoked. It punishes ‘perpetrators’—including the media outlet’s owner—with at least three months of imprisonment and a fine, and penalties become graver if the act is repeated. The punishment can become as severe as five years of imprisonment.
Given the Greek government’s recent hostility toward independent media, the use of Article 191 to silence opposition is a real possibility. In late 2020, for example, Dimitra Kroustalli, a leading Greek journalist, claimed that the Prime Minister’s cabinet pressured her to resign from her newspaper position after she reported on flaws in the government system used to monitor COVID-19 cases. Greek authorities have also been accused of using burdensome rules and criminal investigations to harass journalists investigating abuses against migrants at the border.
By raising the potential costs of dissent, Article 191 further skews the incentives facing Greek journalists, who already had good reason to be wary of the government. Again, this is not an innovative strategy; the Turkish government has followed a similar approach, using libel lawsuits to silence opposition. Such examples of fake news and libel laws attempt to alter the incentive structure of dissenting voices, threatening them with imprisonment or punitive fines that make it risky to continue with independent reporting because fines and criminal punishments could drive media outlets out of existence.
Nevertheless, it is not feasible to prove that the Greek government has acted with malicious intent. Their strategy leaves room for reasonable doubt. Public funding of media outlets is necessary in Greece’s current economic situation; the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted Greece’s already anemic recovery from its financial crisis. No-strings-attached financial support can help struggling media outlets and, as a result, increase the diversity of opinion in the media landscape. However, problems arise when this funding instead decreases diversity of opinion. Furthermore, governments should do their best to combat false information, especially during a pandemic. The problem occurs when these laws encroach on journalistic freedom. It is not too late, however, for the Greek government to reverse track. An unbiased effort to combat misinformation and support struggling media could go a long way towards helping safeguard democracy in Greece and other parts of the world.
Reading this article has shed light on how easy it is to use a crisis and turn it into an advantage when (internationally) nobody is paying attention. Slowly controlling the media through withholding of government funding is one of the best ways to reduce the amount of negative press a regime gets and increase the number of pro-regime news outlets.
Because the news is such an easy way to receive day-to-day information for average citizens, controlling it, either directly or indirectly, can be a clear way to influence everyday people. In this case, Greece has chosen the indirect route by delivering emergency funding to new outlets, but in particular, mostly to outlets that are pro-regime. Critical outlets received only 1% of the total COVID relief funding, with the lion’s share going to pro-government outlets. When the critical outlets begin shuttering their doors, their readers/viewers will have no choice but to migrate to neutral or pro-government outlets, fundamentally changing what angle they receive their news from. This is dangerous for democracy as the Greek government fundamentally controls the media without doing anything that would cause international protest.
Secondly, the Greek government has cracked down on ‘fake news’ during the pandemic, which would be wonderful if they did not leave it intentionally vague to better control what news is classified as ‘fake news’. Again, this functions as a sneaky way for the government to hold a heavier hand over the media without drawing international backlash on its undemocratic actions.
Overall, for a government that would like to control the flow of information, taking advantage of a crisis is an incredibly efficient way to reduce negative press and increase positive press. Great article!