*”Hi, this is Aljosa calling from the Doha Centre For Media Freedom. I’m calling regaring the interview…”*
*”I’m sorry, I can’t talk to you! You know, Greek journalists talking about the situation in Greek media to the foreign press…no, no, no… I can’t! It’s dangerous for me…”*
For almost two weeks, I tried to get in touch with fellow journalists in Greece. I sent out dozens of e-mails, called numerous reporters and editors, but almost everybody declined to speak about what it is like to be a journalist in a country hit by the most devastating economic crisis in its history.
*”We are afraid to lose our jobs”*, said Takis Spiliopoulous, a prominent Greek TV journalist, in a written interview with us.
*”No one knows what the future will bring. Journalists losing their jobs is an everyday occurrence, as are significant reductions in salaries. In the first half of 2011, the five largest media groups alone fired 1,100 journalists. We expect that the second half of 2011 to be even worse.”*
But why are Greek journalists so afraid for their jobs? Is it simply because of the economic crisis that affects everyone or are there other forms of pressure on them?
Athanase Papandropoulos, the president of the European Association of Journalists for Greece, explains the background. *”In a nation of 10 million people, there are 22 national daily newspapers, 121 provincial dailies, 1,700 weekly papers, 2,300 magazines, 17 TV stations with the nationwide coverage, 78 provincial ones and 3,000 radio stations.”*
*”Would you like some more?”* he joked.
To Papandropoulos, it is obvious that a country of the size of Greece doesn’t have the financial means to support all of those media outlets.
*”Some of the papers have a circulation of only 200 to 300 copies – that’s it. It’s ridiculous. And now that the advertising market has collapsed, funding for many media simply dried out.”* Many media outlets, he says, survived only thanks to indirect support from the government.
**Stranded like a fish on the shore**
*”Some 50 percent of the advertising market was under government control and it decided to which media it would channel those funds. It was the most effective way for the government to influence and control the media in Greece,”* says Papandropoulos.
*”But when the crisis struck the entire country and advertisement funds disappeared, many media players found themselves stranded like a fish on the shore. People are angry. They think that the media in Greece are the part of the problem,”* added Spiliopolous, the TV journalist.
According to him, however, the crisis may also have a bright side. Ever since austerity measures erased advertisements as a the main form of income for most media, government control over media is also disappearing.
He says the Greek media is now more likely to give the full picture than before the crisis hit. That is, if they survive.
Papandropolous expects many more journalists will end up losing their jobs: *“By 2012 I expect half of the existing media in Greece to disappear. I think things will go from bad to worse.”*
The economic crisis in Greece didn’t happen overnight. International news outlets report that national debt has risen to 300 billion Euros (approx $415 billion), meaning that every baby born in Greece automatically carries a debt to the banks for around $50,000 USD.
So how did Greek journalists cover the beginnings of the current crisis? Did they warn their audience that the economic system was about to collapse and that public spending cannot go on like it used to?
*“None of the mainstream media pressed the alarm button”*
*”No one could imagine what was going to happen,”* says Spiliopoulos. *”Our politicians kept saying that our economy was strong and that there was no reason to worry. The statistical data they sent to Eurostat suggested that our economy was in an ‘excellent’ condition. Later, we learned that those facts were all fabricated.”*
Not everyone, however, was blind. According to Athanase Papandropoulos, the association’s president, some of his colleagues working for economic magazines did warn the public long before the crisis made front-page headlines. The problem, he says, was that nobody listened.
*”Those magazines had a low circulation and the truth only reached a limited number of readers. The others were completely ignorant, as none of the mainstream media pressed the alarm button,”* he said.
Like Papandropoulos, many blame the general trend in Greek media towards higher ratings rather than in-depth research.
*”Most of the journalism here is tabloid journalism telling the people what they want to hear and not what the facts are. Even today, Greek journalists still don’t explain the the true nature of the crisis and what is behind it,”* Pandropolous explained.
According to him, journalists and media owners try not to disillusion the public, because bad news means smaller circulation, lower ratings and less income.
**Looking for a scapegoat**
One of the most popular editorial coping mechanisms is to blame the problem on others, in this case the European Union. Many in Greece consider the EU to be part of the problem rather than the solution. According to Takis Spiliopoulos, journalists’ positions are no different.
*”Almost all journalists are critical of the austerity measures, even those who are pro-government. Everybody agrees that the measures are not effective, unfair and that they don’t solve the problem of debt. One can see that on any Greek TV channel or read it in any newspaper.”*
On Syntagma square in Athens, right in front of the parliament, people regularly come together to demonstrate, desperately seeking a parachute that could save them from the plummeting Greek plane.
Reports say 2,000 are losing their jobs every day. Journalists are part of that figure. Does this fear mean many journalists are ready to sacrifice their professional standards to keep their jobs? It depends on who you talk to.
*”No, there are no cases like that,”* claims Takis Spiliopoulos, the television journalist. *”The public wants accurate information and whoever doesn’t offer it, will be the loser.”*
Papadopoulos, the head of Greece’s European Association of Journalists, an pan-European body, is less optimistic. Journalists in Greece may still be free to write about any topic they chose.
The way they do, he said, it is a different matter.