Apathy, even violence hit state agency trying to enforce ad laws

The case of rampant outdoor advertising’s re-emergence in Athens has all the ingredients of a police thriller – money, big interests, lawlessness, suspense, mystery and action. The story began in 2003, when Law 2833/2000 relating to preparations for the 2004 Olympic Games was supposed to facilitate the removal of giant advertisements and billboards from the city center. The law was revised four times to make it stricter and give more authority to the state-affiliated agency responsible for the unification of archaeological sites in Athens, known by its acronym EAXA. «When we started this effort, we hadn’t foreseen how widespread the problem was on a legal and practical level,» said Victoria Efthymiadou, EAXA’s legal counsel. «The situation goes generally unchecked. Entire buildings in Syntagma Square and Omonia are covered with advertisements and giant billboards. You see the same on many of the city’s main roads.» So EAXA and others tried to record instances of illegal billboards and search out the owners, in order to work things out. However, finding those responsible was difficult as the details behind the advertisements were hard to track down. If the owners were found and informed of the situation, they had two weeks to take down the billboard or advertisement. If they didn’t do this, then the authorities would take the billboard down. In those cases, things often got ugly. «In the simplest situations, we would go to an apartment building (on a balcony of which there was an outdoor advertisement) and we always found the building locked,» Efthymiadou said. «In other cases, things weren’t so simple. For example, some tried to charge us with various offenses and sent work inspectors to stop us. Others called the police and accused us of damaging private property. Many times, we were even met by hired thugs. For example, in Syntagma we tried to take down an outdoor billboard and people from a neighboring apartment threw bricks at us – and a worker got hurt. In another situation, workers were using a crane to access the balcony of a building – and thugs were waiting for them there, too. These thugs took the law into their own hands so [our] group couldn’t get down.» War in courts The second war between outdoor advertisers and those trying to enforce the rules on outdoor advertising is unfolding in the courts. «EAXA has managed to issue about 7,500 decisions from the Environment, Physical Planning and Public Works Ministry (PEXODE), all of which declare these billboards arbitrary,» Efthymiadou said. «However, those advertising agencies involved [in outdoor billboards] are bringing charges against us to stop us. We have prevailed in all the cases so far – about 500 of them since the day we began.» One advertising agency has even brought charges against the entire advisory council of EAXA. «This particular company wants 1 million euros for every billboard taken down,» said Fotini Pipili, a journalist and member of the EAXA council. «So we also unanimously decided to bring charges against this particular company, saying they are blocking our own work. As members of EAXA and as citizens, we should not expect this kind of pressure from businessmen working in outdoor advertising. We are following the law. We didn’t just get up one morning and decide to take down billboards.» Pipili says she has told the public prosecutor’s office that this realm of the advertising world operates dangerously, even comparing it to the mafia. «I also told her – in all honesty – that I am afraid for my personal safety…» she added. Unfair battle EAXA has limited finances. Tracking down the companies who put up billboards illegally costs a great deal of money. So the battle between the advertisers and EAXA is an unfair one. But just walk through the capital and you can see that outdoor advertising and billboards are once again springing up everywhere – in the center, the suburbs and along the seaside and major thoroughfares, such as Syngrou. They are emblazoned with images of scantily clad women, alcoholic beverages, cigarettes, clubs, and cars. Often, these billboards go up with the cooperation of the municipality and via under-the-table transactions. Efthymiadou says municipalities get a cut of money from advertisers and the Ministry of Environment, Physical Planning and Public Works doesn’t get involved. She adds that fines of between 30,000 and 50,000 euros are supposed to be imposed every six months for every infraction of the outdoor advertising law, but the previous and current leaders of PEXODE have never imposed any such fines. Pipili said she is unhappy about the lack of accountability at the City of Athens and other municipalities in relation to rampant outdoor advertising. «Let’s be honest,» she said. «Nearly all outdoor advertising is illegal. It’s turned into a big party now worth millions of euros.»

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