The government on Tuesday launched an auction for four private nationwide TV licenses, a highly polarized procedure that leftist officials have portrayed as a bid to streamline the country’s dysfunctional media landscape and which critics see as a thinly disguised attempt to control it.
Eight such networks are operating at the moment, which means that four will have to suspend operations within 90 days, or take part in a follow-up auction for theme-based licenses about which the details are still obscure.
The starting price for bids Tuesday was set at 3 million euros. Bids were to increase by amounts of 500,000 euros.
Media executives and representatives, some wheeling suitcases, entered the heavily guarded premises of the General Secretariat of Information and Communications (GGEE) in Athens where the tender is taking place. Representatives of the bidders are not allowed to communicate with each other or with the outside world during the process, which is expected to go on for two days. The use of cell phones is prohibited.
“In order to safeguard the interest of the state, the flow of information between the bidders must be cut,” State Minister Nikos Pappas, who is overseeing the tender, told state TV on Tuesday.
TV channels have appealed to a top court. Their case is strengthened by legal experts who warn that the decision to restrict the number of licenses to four goes against the Greek Constitution as well as European Union rules on free market access. The European Commission has expressed reservations over the process, which also saw the sidelining of the National Council for Radio and Television (ESR), an independent watchdog.
Developments have drawn the ire of Greece’s opposition parties. A spokesman for main opposition New Democracy, which has said that it will not recognize the results of the procedure, on Tuesday said the ruling SYRIZA party was seeking to build “a gray regime.”
“It is only illiberal establishments that manipulate and control information which seek to determine and rule on the exact number of television stations,” Giorgos Koumoutsakos said.
Other political parties issued similar statements.
Responding to opposition criticism, government spokeswoman Olga Gerovasili repeated what has become a SYRIZA mantra, saying that the auction is designed to bring order to the market and purge it of corruption, while urging the conservatives to recognize the process.
“New Democracy must recognize that the status quo of the past 27 years was unacceptable,” she said, suggesting that private channels had for years been broadcasting illegally because their permits were not acquired through a tender.
But TV channel executives appeared unconvinced.
“We must pay ransom so that the channels can continue to operate along the lines of a modern democracy,” Skai TV CEO Kostas Kibouropoulos said as he went through the gates of the GGEE building.