‘Basic shareholders’ on warpath

The government’s initiative to try and lay some ground rules for business transactions between media barons and the State is likely to lead to renewed conflict on the political and economic front. Press Minister Christos Protopappas’s bill on putting limits on media companies’ «basic shareholders» in their dealings with the State may have won praise from Prime Minister Costas Simitis and general approval from the Cabinet but has resulted in pressure on the government from two diametrically opposed sources. The main opposition party, New Democracy, has made it clear it will insist that media ownership rules out any kind of business transaction with the State, claiming that anything less will only perpetuate the existing web of entangled interests. At the other end of the spectrum are the powerful media barons who have supported the government in the past, and who are now up in arms and pressing for a far more flexible arrangement. The fact that the prime minister has given Protopappas the green light is indicative of the obstacles the government is likely to face and which will exacerbate what is already an unfavorable political climate. According to sources, Cabinet members had asked Simitis to freeze the issue until the next elections or else to go ahead with it at a more politically opportune time. The prime minister eventually decided to press on regardless, wanting to set clear outlines for further business activity. Following another series of discussions between the press minister, media owners and journalists’ unions, the bill should be ready for tabling in Parliament within a month. The question now for the prime minister and his Cabinet is the extent to which the initiative will affect its relations with the media at a very crucial time. According to senior government officials, a hostile press will make it extremely difficult for the government to take action in a number of sensitive sectors, for example the social security system and Greek-Turkish relations. It is also clear that if specific individuals want to hurt the government they will not do so by attacking the media bill but by casting doubt on the government’s policies as a whole or by criticizing specific measures. Government officials differ over the kind of political environment that is expected to emerge once the controversial bill is passed. Some believe that any opposition will soon wane, since the media landscape will not change radically. Meanwhile, in view of the imminent implementation of the Third Community Support Framework, there are margins for finding a new modus vivendi. Some Cabinet members, however, fear that the displeasure of certain media barons is not restricted to the question of basic shareholders but is of a more deep-rooted and more permanent nature. If so, it is clear that the prime minister will not have an easy time of it over the next few months, particularly in view of the campaign for local elections in October.

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