Broadcast permit system appears set for a change

The government is facing a number of legal headaches as it attempts to formulate a draft law on major shareholders. The issue is monopolizing discussion at Maximos Mansion, since the new measure will be the most significant proof of the breaks with entanglement that Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis has declared himself determined to make. State Minister Theodoros Roussopoulos has refused to furnish any information, but it is no secret that there are two main obstacles: the participation of offshore companies in a number of existing television and publishing enterprises, and the problem of so-called related individuals being major shareholders in media companies. Loopholes The obstacles are the chief two loopholes in a PASOK-sponsored law, because the Constitution (Article 14, Paragraph 9) holds the status of major shareholder in a media enterprise to be incompatible with that of a state contractor or supplier. The law simply specified that a «major shareholder» was one who owned 5 percent or more of a media concern. The Constitution states outright that the incompatibility also applies to individuals connected to media owners (spouses, relatives, economically dependent individuals and companies). The two loopholes were not closed, because the law introduced by former Justice Minister Evangelos Venizelos introduced the exception of «economic independence,» allowing related individuals to show that they had acquired media shares not as a gift or in a suspect manner, but by paying for them. It is a matter of common knowledge what happened next. Most media proprietors that had any connection with the state either invented ways of making some of the relatives appear to be economically independent, or resorted to offshore companies behind which to hide their anonymity. Numerous proposals are being aired over what the final form of the bill on major shareholders should be. Sources say, for example, that the government is trying to get offshore companies completely out of the media, that it will define the term «economic independence» so that related individuals can be scrutinized as to the source of their income over the previous 15 months, and that it will force media companies to make public the names of all their shareholders, even of private individuals. The government has made a commitment that someone who owns 1 percent of a media company will be deemed to be a major shareholder, while Interior Minister Prokopis Pavlopoulos argued last year that relatives up to the fourth removed be deemed related individuals. All these suggestions entail legal problems, however. For instance, the exclusion of offshore companies from a specific sector of the economy falls into the province of European Union law, which is why the government is involved in a dialogue with the EU. If offshore companies do retain a stake in the media, nobody can force them to disclose information about their shareholders, because they are governed by the law of the state in which they were established and not by Greek law. With this in mind, the solution being set in motion by the government, especially for television channels, may not reside solely in the law on major shareholders, but in a supplementary law. Much is being said of the notion of completely overturning the existing legislation concerning media permits, which has proved a failure in practice. It must be recalled that channels continue to operate without permits. Sources say there will be new proposals to formulate conditions linked not only to the ownership status of media companies, but even to what they produce. To make it clear what weapons the government has at its disposal, one need only cite Article 15 of the Constitution, which says that «the direct control of the state – under which radio and television fall – is aimed at the objective and equitable broadcasting of information and news as well as discourse and the arts, and the guarantee of the quality of programs which is imposed by the social mission of radio and television and the cultural development of the country.» To that let it be added that the – as yet unassigned – television frequencies are a public good and so the government could very well determine a completely new legal framework that would radically change the way the mass media currently operate.