AIM: start

SAT, 28 APR 2001 18:18:20 GMT

Greek Radio-phobia

AIM Athens, April 28, 2001

The opening of the new airport at Spata, Athens was definitely one of the main highlights of this year, with busloads of the elderly and pupils brought in to admire Greece's new gateway to Europe. Yet, not everybody was pleased with the new airport. To be more specific, there must be a number of radio station owners who presumably would have preferred that the airport remain in its previous location. Inconsistent as the above might seem, all will be revealed once we begin to unravel the threads of one of greatest scandals to take place in Greece in the last decade.

Until recently, Greece had not adopted the radio-station licensing system legislated … a decade ago. The results being that all (86) of the radio stations in Athens were operating without licenses; the first private station began broadcasting in 1987. Nearly all the antennas of these radio stations were perched on Mount Hymmetus, overlooking the new Spata airport. A half-hearted effort to remedy this situation was made for the first time in 1996, when the National Radio and Television Council (NRTC), restructured in 1995, asked radio station owners to submit their applications for licenses along with information on their stations' specifications - something that they duly did by 1997. Following that, the only thing the NRTC did was compile a list of 51 radio stations, rated in accordance to their qualifications and the criteria set out in Law 2328/95. This list was made public on 14 December 2000. Apart from that, it did not pursue the matter further, and the radio stations continued their unlicensed operation.

Only in February 2001 did the NRTC convene to examine the files submitted by the radio-station owners, files that were grossly outdated and, in some cases, contained inaccurate information (e.g. previous owner's name, incorrect frequencies, etc.). Of the 86 applicants, 45 had not submitted a complete file, 22 had, and the remaining 19 had both a complete file as well as a temporary license.

The NRTC made public a list of the 20 highest-ranking radio stations, in accordance with the criteria set out in Law 2328/95. Three radio stations had the same rank, vying for 20th position. After the "backstage" intervention of the Press and Mass Media Minister Mr. Reppas, the "Alfa News" radio station was excluded, a fact that in and of itself would be a scandal, were it not merely the tip of the iceberg.

Following the announcement of the list of those 20 radio stations that will be issued licenses, the NRTC made known on 21 February 2001 its decision to provide 3 additional licenses. 42 interested parties responded and promptly submitted the necessary files, at their own considerable expense. Then, all of the sudden, the NRTC, in the wake of the Press and Mass Media Minister's intercession at the behest of the Public Transportation Minister Mr. Verelis, announced that it will award 8 more licenses. The logical thing to do would be to select the next 8 highest ranking radio stations from the list of the 51 rated ones, i.e. stations No 21-28. This is indeed what the Chairman of the NRTC, Mr. Lampridis, proposed to the Press Minister. Nevertheless, the latter proceeded to ask NRTC member Prof. Flogaitis to form a committee and compile, with the help of expert technicians, a new list of 8 candidates.

The criteria that Mr. Flogaitis and these technicians had at their disposal when deciding which radio stations to include in the new list remain unknown, since they have not been disclosed even to NRTC, the committee's purported supervising body. They must have been quite erroneous though, in so far as the list Mr. Flogaitis proposed to the NRTC on 22 March included 4 radio stations, of which 3 did not meet the necessary qualifications and consequently were not included in the initial rating list of the 51 radio stations, while the 4th held rank 36 in the said list. Furthermore, one of the committee members, Mr. Koulouris, when interviewed, kept rather confusingly referring to two lists - one consisting of the 8 and the other of 15 radio stations. At the same time he also acknowledged that because of the issue's urgent nature, they had no time to examine the radio stations' files!

>From then on, events moved at a swift pace. The NRTC convened on 23 March and adopted the committee's proposal. According to NRTC member Mr. Ikonomides, who resigned his position on 2 April, the Council was denied access to the committee's records. He also implied that the committee might well have misled the Council. The impression the latter conveyed to the Council was that the 8 new licenses would be of a strictly provisional nature and that the 8 radio stations that the committee proposed were those complying with the strictest criteria concerning the power output of their antennas. Hence they posed no threat to air traffic.

The same day, the NRTC (chaired by Mr. Flogaitis) informed the Press Minister of its decision to grant the 8 stations with new licenses. The Press Minister, invoking the NRTC's decision - unlawfully, as the NRTC's decision is purely consultative and not binding - proceeded to cut off the power supply to the non-legal radio stations. This was only two hours after informing them of the NRTC's decision and without serving them with the necessary judicial notice.

Behind this swift response of the Greek government (highly unusual, by Greek standards) ostensibly stood the need to prevent the radio stations' emissions from interfering with aircraft navigational aids, according to the Transportation Minister Mr. Verelis. Nevertheless, one could well wonder why the government took the decision to instill some order in the (undoubtedly chaotic) situation in the field of radio emissions only days before the opening of the new airport. In this respect, it should be noted that both according to a report by the Polytechnic University's Prof. Uzunoglu as well as the statements of pilots of Olympic Airways, the radio emissions from Mount Hymettus posed no threat to air traffic safety. Mr. Verelis contended that he was not aware of Mr. Uzunoglu's report, only to be belied when it was learned that Mr. Uzunoglu had personally delivered the report into his hands.

One can easily imagine what resulted from all this. Many of the owners of the radio stations that were closed down took their case to the Council of State (the Supreme Administrative Court of Greece), alleging irregularities in the license-granting procedure. Continuing evidence of the whole issue's "shadowy" background is the fact that the Council of State had to threaten the NRTC members with seizure of the minutes of the meeting if they did not sign them, which they had yet to do.

In addition and subsequent to Mr. Ikonomides' resignation, the head of the Athens Prosecuting Office, Mr Sakellakos, ordered a preliminary investigation to first assertain the validity of the assertions in Mr. Ikonomides' letter of resignation, and then to discover if these offences could be prosecuted ex officio.

This whole issue raises important normative questions concerning the quality of democracy in Greece. Firstly, no explanation has been advanced as to the number of radio stations that may be allowed to broadcast without endangering air traffic. Initially, Mr. Reppas alleged that the FM spectrum could accommodate only 20 stations. The number later rose to 23 and, within a day, to 28. Furthermore, Mr. Reppas has insinuated that even more radio stations might be provided with the licenses. One could argue that safety reasons precluded the granting of more than 20 or 23 or 28 licenses. Yet, according to the Prof. Uzunoglu's report, up to 52 radio stations can operate as long as the antennas have a low power output. Consequently, if the government wanted to, it could have provided licenses to, at the very least, those 41 radio stations that had filed a complete application.

According to John Giachanatzis from "Anti" magazine (issue of 6 April 2001), the reason why the government acted the way it did is twofold. Firstly, he alleges that the government is, on a regular basis, monitoring the broadcasts of all radio stations and, consequently, the more radio stations allowed to operate, the more difficult it would be for the government's agencies to monitor them. Additionally, the more radio licenses granted, the more difficult it would be for the government to provide more than one license to its "own" people - which brings us to the second reason. Government members appear to be engaged in an effort to form alliances with influential power groups. This might seem like a tall assertion, but various events go a long way in substantiating it. How else can one explain the fact that even right-wing newspapers started extolling various government members right after the parent groups they belong to obtained the radio license(s) they were requesting? Or the fact that, in stark contravention to the law, businessmen who already had one radio license acquired a second one as well?

Perhaps the tape containing the minutes of the NRTC's meeting of 23 March will shed more light on the background of the affair. According to "Anti" magazine, members of the Council openly negotiated among themselves to grant licenses to their patrons' radio stations. This might well explain Mr. Flogaitis' insistence that the tape be destroyed…

How can one explain all the above? Professor Antonis Manitakis, a respected academic and former NRTC president who resigned in protest of previous manipulations a few years ago, contended that, "…in no other European country are the boundaries between legality and illegality, lawlessness and piracy, state arbitrariness and private indulgence, ministerial corruption and society's condoning of such, and economic-social entanglement and political-party complicity so fluid and only relatively separated, yet so harmoniously interwoven, as they are in Greece" (Avgi newspaper, 10/3/2001). As to why it took the government so long to attempt to put some order into the FM spectrum, Mr. Manitakis argues that "The government let the situation get out of hand. It fostered chaos and indulgence so that it could administer in a blunt and opportunist fashion the radio and television interests. It invoked expediency and the public interest in order to receive selective political benefits. Private indulgence and governmental arbitrariness go hand in hand." (Avgi newspaper 1/4/2001).

Theodoros Alexandridis