Stylianos Papathanassopoulos, Aikaterini Stavrianea, Achilleas Karadimitriou, Christos Kostopoulos, Aikaterini Metaxa
Greece is a medium-sized market, populated by a plethora of media outlets, while it is questionable whether the advertising expenditure can sustain the oversupply of newspapers, magazines, TV channels, radio stations and online news media (Media Guide, 2021).
The issue of transparency related to media has recently been challenged in the case of the media subsidy initiative, taken by the government during the Covid-19 crisis and applicable through a €20 million public health advertising campaign. The government was criticised for implementing a distribution process of state funding to media, setting aside the necessary principles of transparency, accessibility and reviewability (Resource Centre on Media Freedom in Europe, 2020).
At the same time, the Covid-19 pandemic has had major side effects on a declining press market. In effect, some newspapers ceased publishing their printed versions (e.g., the daily and then Saturday newspaper Ethnos as well as the weekly newspaper Fileleftheros), while new digital news media emerged (e.g., moneyreview.gr and imerisia.gr).
As far as the broadcasting sector is concerned, according to the latest report released by the National Council for Radio and Television (NCRTV) (2020), in 2020 the television field of the Greek territory consists of 111 private television companies and 5 public service television channels, transmitting their programmes through the digital terrestrial television system. Following the requirements of technological innovations, more and more mainstream media organisations have recently applied the latest digital technologies in television broadcasting, launching their own hybrid TV platforms (Ertflix by public service broadcaster ERT, Open Beyond TV, Skai Hybrid, Mega Play, ANT1 Plus), providing the audience with access to Hybrid broadcast broadband TV services (HbbTV), offered in parallel with the digital terrestrial broadcasting programmes.
Particularly, in the subscription-based digital television field, according to the NCRTV (2020), four digital platforms are in operation, offering television programmes via satellite or internet. Judging by the latest developments in the digital field, the spearhead for the future of the Greek audiovisual market lies in the online streaming services provided by several companies such as Nova (EON TV platform), Cosmote (Cosmote TV platform), Vodafone (Vodafone TV platform), Wind (Wind Vision platform), combining the live broadcasting of linear TV channels with the video-on-demand content through tailored-made suggestions to the internet users that best suit their preferences. At the same time, the provision of OTT audiovisual content services is dominated by Netflix, followed by the Greek platform Cinobo, Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video, and Disney+, while a new player is about to enter the digital field (HBO MAX) (1).
The field of audio broadcasting, according to the latest report of the NCRTV (2020: 36), includes 892 radio outlets transmitting programmes mostly based on the analog technology and mainly using a modulated signal on FM.
In the context of the EurOMo pilot project, the research sample consists of the five largest media groups of the country (Alter Ego S.A., Antenna Group, Alpha Group, Dimera Group, Skai Broadcasting Group, Kathimerini Publishing S.A.) as well as the public service broadcaster, ERT S.A. (2)
It is well known in Greece that the most influential media organisations/companies of the country are controlled by a few powerful entrepreneurs (Ioannis Alafouzos, Themistokles Alafouzos, Theodore/Thodoris Kyriakou, Evangelos Marinakis, Giannis Vardinogiannis). One more is considered as semi-foreigner (the Russian-Greek businessman Ivan Savvidis, who used to be engaged in politics serving as a member of the Russian parliament). All of them are also active in other sectors of the economy apart from media, such as in the oil and shipping industry, and some of them are engaged in the football field too.
Mr. Evangelos Marinakis is the major shareholder of Alter Ego S.A., a media group which has started growing in 2007 after the acquisition of a historical, but bankrupted media group, known as Dimosiografikos Organismos Lambrakis (DOL in Greek). In the context of this acquisition, Alter Ego S.A. also obtained a large percentage of shares in the Argos S.A., the sole press distribution company operating in Greece. Nowadays, Alter Ego S.A. owns two television channels (the free-to-air Mega as well as the satellite and internet distributed One Channel), two newspapers (Sunday newspaper To Vima and daily newspaper Ta Nea) with their respective websites, one news web portal (in.gr) and several magazines (Vita, Vimagazino, Mommy & Daddy, DownTown, Esquire). Mr. Marinakis is also the founder and chairman of Capital Maritime Trading Corp., having established a leading role in the maritime industry, and he owns Olympiacos football team, holding, at the same time, the position of chairman.
Skai broadcasting group is another influential player in contemporary media field of Greece, focusing on broadcasting services. It belongs to the same family as Kathimerini S.A. with Ioannis Alafouzos being the main shareholder and CEO. In this media group are incorporated one free-to-air television channel (Skai TV), two radio stations (Skai 100.3 and Sport FM 94.6) as well as a number of digital media (skai.gr, skaitv.gr, skairadio.gr, sport-fm.gr etc.). Ioannis Alafouzos is also the owner and chairman of Panathinaikos Football team and serves as chairman and CEO of Okeanis Eco Tankers Corporation.
Vardinogiannis media group is an evolving component of the contemporary media field in Greece, owned by Vardinogiannis family through the parent company Motor Oil S.A. which includes a plethora of subsidiary companies (Media Guide 2021: 89-91), whose activities run in many countries of the world apart from Greece. This media group consists of two mainstream television stations (Alpha and Star Channel), four radio stations (Alpha 9.89, Alpha 9.65, Diesi FM 101.3, and Dromos 89.8 FM) and their respective websites.
Last but not least, Nikos Savvidis and Kyriaki Savvidi are the owners of Beltera Holdings Ltd, subsidiary company of Dimera Media Investments Ltd. (DMI), based in Cyprus. DMI controls the whole part of Radiotileoptiki S.A., which owns the television channel Open TV and the news website imerisia.gr. To DMI also belongs the Dimera Publishing S.A., which owns the brands of Ethnos newspaper and Imerisia newspaper, which used to belong to Pegasus Publishing S.A. Overall, DMI – after the circulation’s suspension of the daily printed newspaper Ethnos (in July, 31st 2019) and the Sunday printed newspaper Ethnos tis Kyriakis (in August, 10th 2020) – includes one television station (Open TV) and its respective website (tvopen.gr) and two news web portals (ethnos.gr and imerisia.gr). Ivan Savvidis is also the owner of PAOK Thessaloniki football team, holding, at the same time, the position of chairman.
The General Electronic Commercial Registry (G.E.MI. in Greek)(3) is a public access source in Greece where anyone can find, based on an internal search engine, all the official documents issued by the administration sector of the media companies. However, the visibility of the relevant data presupposes the user’s basic knowledge with regard to the official name of the media company under investigation. This is usually detectable on the impressum of the media outlet, as depicted either on the printed version of a newspaper/magazine or on its website version. The richest documents in data prove to be the annual reports and balance sheets of the media companies where anyone can read – far from the financial analysis of the turnover – the organisational structural pyramid of a media group, consisting of a parent company and its subsidiaries.
G.E.MI. is a single electronic commercial registry (https://www.businessportal.gr/), incorporating information and official documents concerning all legal forms of businesses in Greece. It is accessible to the general public aiming at monitoring the commercial enterprises on the part of the state leading to a better provision of services to them coming from the central government and its relevant authorities.
In the Greek media field, the clarity about the beneficial owners is achieved in many cases of media outlets through the official documents released by the national regulatory authorities (NCRTV, Hellenic Competition Commission) or published in G.E.MI. platform, revealing the shareholding structure of the companies. Once in a while, several publications with regard to the persons who legally own the media companies appear in the (online) press, particularly when mergers or changes in the shareholder composition take place. These publications are often instigated by the spirit of competition that governs the media owners, who find themselves in a state of fight for profit making, due to their simultaneous business activity in other sectors of the economy.
The clarity with respect to the beneficial owners of the media outlets is accompanied by the absence of contested legal ownership. The actual control over executives, personnel or editorial decision-making is implicitly exerted by the official media owners, based on a process of editorial line imposition, and delivered to the staff via a trusted board of directors or reliable executives acting as spokespersons for the owner.
However, despite the above disclosures, there is also major information missing or dispersed, among which the most evident concerns the exact number of the journalism working force, the persons having the editorial responsibility (this applies mostly to the case of broadcasters’ digital ventures), the circulation of newspapers – due to a dispute of publishers with regard to the company in charge of distributing press in a state of monopoly (4) – as well as the visits of users on media organisations’ websites. In the broadcasting field, the performance of broadcasters, in terms of daily audience reach, is a type of information not publicly available, at least in a coherent way. The government has recently passed a law that obliges the media companies to be transparent regarding the leading executives designated as responsible, according to the law, for the content.
In Greece, the most vulnerable aspect of media ownership in terms of transparency seems to be related to the financial profile of the media organisations. Public funding in the form of subsidies is a “thorny” piece of information, usually inaccessible by the public. The disclosure of such information is occasionally implemented on an ad hoc basis, usually in the context of a great crisis (socio-political or financial one), acting as a pressure lever for transparency defence (5).
Although there are no officially reported cases of breach of editorial independence by the owners or the managers of the media outlets, research has shown that editorial autonomy in Greek media outlets is at stake (6). In Greece, the media outlets mostly adopt an ownership-centric approach when a dismissal or appointment of an editor-in-chief takes place within newsrooms. In such cases, media organisations have never disclosed any information with respect to procedures safeguarding the expression of editors’ opinions. The only exception to the general inexistence of newsroom councils is the daily newspaper Efimerida ton Syntakton, that is characterised by a cooperative character and thus the management is elected by the employees themselves, who are at the same time the main shareholders in the newspaper, a procedure not explicitly revealed to the public.
In the Greek media system, apart from one case, the publicly available official documents indicate no affiliations of most media owners with political parties, regional/local governments or relevant civil society actors (7).
After assessing comparatively the distribution channels in Greece, it can be argued that each media sector exhibits peculiarities posing risks of varying vulnerability to transparency. The television field is characterised by a high infrastructure diversity (through DTT and IPTV systems), accompanied by conditions of fierce competition among multiple organisations of TV channels, owned by a handful of dominant owners. By contrast, in the radio sector, even though there are multiple distributors of content, forming an audio field of intense competition, the infrastructure diversity can be considered as low. This is reflected in the fact that Greece is lagging behind in terms of technological advancements in the radio sector and particularly in terms of digital distribution.
In the field of linear media, there are two peculiarities of the Greek market challenging its transparency and integrity. The first one lies in the fact that Digea (Digital Provider S.A.), whose mission is to provide networking and multiplexing services but also broadcasting networking in the private (national and regional) television stations of Greece, has been established by the private national television channels Alpha, Alter, Antenna, Macedonia TV, Mega, Skai and Star. As a result, the mainstream television organisations perform two roles being at the same time network providers and content providers. On the other hand, the coverage of Digea’s digital signal reaches 95% of the country, as required by law (Decision 42800 / 5.10.2012 / Government Gazette B 2704/2012).The public broadcaster ERT (unlike Digea) is a universal provider of network services, obliged to cover digitally the entire country. In the field of subscription-based IPTV, there are several companies offering their digital audiovisual services (Cosmote TV, EON/Nova TV, Vodafone TV) to the entire population.
However, in the press sector, a paradox dominating the distribution system lies in that the unique distributor of newspapers and magazines, Argos S.A., operates having as shareholders mainly a number of publishing companies as well as the owner of the influential media group Alter Ego S.A. According to Hellenic Competition Commission (2018, decision 659), the company Alter Ego “holds indirect de facto joint control in the distribution company of the press ‘ARGOS S.A. AGENCY ADMINISTRATION AND TRANSPORTATION’ with its shareholders the companies ‘ELEFTHERIA TOU TYPOU EKDTOTYKI ANONYMI ETAIRIA’, ‘EKDOSEIS PROTO THEMA EKDTOTYKI ANONYMI ETAIRIA’ and “S.A. J.P EKDTOTYKI I.K.E.’” (Hellenic Competition Commission, 2018).
As to the broadband services field, in Greece, over the last decade household penetration of internet has considerably increased with internet access at home reaching 85.1% of the households in 2021 and with 8 out of 10 people, aged 16-74 (78.5%), having used the internet in the first quarter of 2021 (ELSTAT, 2021). However, the distribution infrastructure of internet shows heterogeneity in terms of connectivity scores displayed by the different types of connectivity.
Labyrinth is a Greek word that certainly applies to its media legal framework. In theory, the importance of the transparency issue is evident in the recently reformed Hellenic Constitution. In effect, it provides that “ownership, financial status and media funding must be made known, as required by law. Law provides for the measures and restrictions that are necessary to fully ensure transparency and pluralism in information” (article 14, paragraph 9, Hellenic Parliament, 2019: 5712).
Apart from laws that provide individually just for one single aspect of transparency, there are also those attempting regulation in the media field incorporating, in a combined format, provisions for various aspects (e.g., funding transparency along with ownership transparency or/and anti-concentration measures)(8). The laws, regardless of their high complexity, are subject to successive additions, amendments or replacements, making it difficult to understand the depth of the regulation that they are aiming at. Moreover, the complexity of the Hellenic legal system is accompanied by a number of decisions, taken by the regulatory bodies (e.g. the Hellenic Competition Commission).
It is noteworthy that the national legal system, which is rich in laws and presidential decrees, seeks transparency regarding media owners being engaged in several types of media organisations through specific disclosure of information. The transposition of article 5 of the EU Directive 2018/1808 (Audiovisual Media Services Directive) into the national legal system obliges media services providers to render some major information with respect to their organisations available to the public: a) name and distinctive title of the media company, b) address of registered office and actual establishment, (c) complete contact details and in particular e-mail and/or website address and telephone numbers; d) contact details of the NCRTV, and in particular e-mail and website address, telephone numbers and postal address.
According to EurOMo indicators, several media outlets in Greece comply with this regulation, mainly the press companies releasing the relevant information both on the printed version of the newspapers or magazines and on their respective websites (in specific printed or electronic sections devoted to the description of the media company’s identity) (9). By contrast, in the broadcasting sector, the deviation from the above rule is common, since there are cases of TV or mainly of radio channels that prove to be inconsistent with the obligation set by law, at least by looking at the content of their websites.
Regardless of the different degree of consistency shown by the media organisations towards the above law, a key risk to media transparency is the fact that media outlets are not required up to now to disclose contact details of their direct and actual beneficiary. On the other hand, the extent of the participation in the share capital of the media organisation arises at least from the need to demonstrate that there are registered shares up to a natural person in the entire spectrum of shareholding. Additionally, based on the Presidential Decree 310/1996, the radio and television companies are obliged to submit to the NCRTV a list of all persons employed in the media organisation based on a dependent employment relationship. Moreover, the law sets out requirements for immediate updates in the ownership identity of media organisations after any relevant change takes place, given that approval or notification of the transfer of shares is required.
Despite these provisions, in effect, the relevant legislation has never been efficient in achieving the expected restoration of media organisations’ ownership status.
As to the field of digital intermediaries, in the Greek legal framework there are no laws addressing the issues of transparency in content curation by these influential players of the new media field or laws prioritising or safeguarding public interest content in the environment of digital intermediaries.
The research sample selected for the purposes of the EurOMo pilot project reveals a media landscape in Greece dominated by a few media magnates, who shape clear conditions of media ownership concentration. Most of them are, at the same time, explicitly engaged in other non-media sectors of the economy (e.g., in petroleum and shipping industry).
One of the most interesting findings is that the Greek media ownership landscape seems to be in a state of flux. Even during the period of data collection for the purposes of the EurOMo pilot project, considerable changes have been taking place regarding the ownership regime of media organisations. For instance, in March 2022, after long-lasting negotiations, Antenna Group entered into a partnership with MBC Group through a process of share capital increase with the latter group acquiring 30% of Antenna Group’s shares (Papavassilopoulos, 2022; ant1news.gr, 2022). Additionally, one year earlier, Alpha Satellite Television S.A. acquired 50% of the company Green Pixel Productions with the rest of it remaining to New Television S.A. (both companies owned by the Vardinogiannis business family, who is engaged in the petroleum industry through Motor Oil, Corinth Refineries S.A.) upon the approval of the Hellenic Competition Committee.
This acquisition was preceded by another one of utmost importance (in October 2018), that of Alpha TV by the Vardinogiannis family on the basis of an official agreement, according to which the management of the station is undertaken jointly by Seilla Enterprises Limited (subsidiary of Motor Oil, owned by the Vardinogiannis family) and Alpha Media Group Limited. In the last years, United Group, the growing provider of telecommunications and media services in Southeast Europe, which is controlled by the private equity fund BC Partners, acquired Nova (a telecom and pay TV company), and Wind (a mobile and fixed telecommunication company). The merger of Nova and Wind is in progress and the new corporate entity emerging, under the name Nova, is expected to be the second largest provider of fixed and pay TV in Greece. Last but not least, the most recent fact confirming the fluidness of the communication field in Greece is that in June 2022 Motor Oil announced the sale of 50% of Alpha Satellite Television S.A. (Alpha TV station), held by the subsidiary of Mediamax Holdings to Primos Media, a company based in Luxembourg and a subsidiary of an investment company, for €41.5 billion (moneyreview.gr, 2022; efsyn.gr, 2022). Details about the identity of the buyer or the objectives of the transaction hardly came to light.
The recent changes, mentioned above, are indicative of the fact that in Greece any transparency at the ownership chain of media organisations is achieved and revealed through press publications, via official documents referring to decisions released by the relevant regulatory authorities (such as the National Council for Radio and Television and the Hellenic Competition Commission) or through official documents publicly accessible on the website of the General Commercial Registry (G.E.MI.) database. The findings of the pilot research explicitly confirm that in terms of ownership transparency issues, the most detailed source providing insights into the operational status and operational changes with regard to the media companies is GE.MI. platform, where media companies’ statutes and balance sheets are publicly available. However, there is still missing information with respect to several attributes of media organisations, posing risks to media ownership transparency, which differ among the media sectors.
Therefore, it can be argued that despite these useful sources, one major challenge in the case of Greece is that access to sensitive information with regard to many sectors of the economy, including media, is a demanding and quite difficult task either because information is fragmented and dispersed or because it is well hidden.
One of the factors hampering the transparency of the broadcasting market in Greece is related to the fact that the relevant regulatory authority (NCRTV) releases reports on its activities/decisions or on the major developments taking place in the audiovisual sector with apparent delay, displaying distinctive slowness in the execution of its operational responsibilities (10).
A significant challenge to the issue of media ownership transparency stems from the current legislation regarding media operations, which is complex and maze-like, as highlighted in our research by media law experts, a long-lasting feature that makes it difficult to understand to what extent the relevant legislation is applicable or not. Within this “illegible” institutional framework the objective of preserving media ownership transparency (or even pluralism and freedom of speech), which reflect considerable principles in any contemporary democracy, looks like an inaccessible – if not impossible – task. However, compared to the past, some progress has been made, although several crises (financial constraints and the COVID-19 pandemic) have led the media field to successive rearrangements.
In the legal framework, one peculiarity of Greece lies in the fact that while responsibility for media transparency belongs to the jurisdiction of the relevant regulatory authorities, their operational efficiency as well as their independence are frequently challenged, a phenomenon accompanied by a negative impact on the legally required effort for transparency in the media field.
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