OPINION

Media ownership

It has been 15 years since the green light was given for the operation of private televisions channels in 1989. However, the sector remains in disarray. The cause of this is well known. Previous governments chose to sustain a temporary and ambiguous situation as it gave them more leverage over the electronic media. As a result, we saw the rise of conflicting interests in the money-media-government triangle. As years went by, the phenomenon of political and business entanglement reached unnerving proportions, posing a threat to the smooth functioning of the democratic system. The media came gradually under the control of moguls who saw a chance to influence political developments or, at least, to receive preferential treatment from the political elite. Media owners offered political support and, in return, secured lavish contracts from the State. In that context, a sea of hypocrisy was to be expected. Even after the revision of the Constitution, Dimitris Reppas (who was at that time press minister) did not hesitate to state in public that no public works contractor or supplier had any shares in the news business. Everyone knew that was an erroneous statement. It is just that the minister had taken refuge in the poor pretext that most major channels are owned by offshore companies. Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis has pledged to put an end to the hypocrisy and ambiguity that feed political and business entanglement. He owes it to society but he also owes it to himself in light of his bitter years in opposition. As opposition leader, Karamanlis was often politically sabotaged or hit below the belt. Being still fresh in government office, Karamanlis is relatively protected from such practices. The only risk is yielding to the temptation of bargaining with the media barons in the hope of winning their favor; but recent events should dissuade him of that idea. And if he were driven by partisan gain, he must purge the political system from this ill before it is too late. There is talk that a bill on media ownership will soon be submitted to Parliament. If there is indeed political will, the point is to make sure there are no loopholes in the legislation. The important thing is not whether a primary shareholder is someone who owns more than 1 or 2 percent in a certain media business. The shares in media companies must be registered while offshore companies must be banned from owning such shares. A similar prohibition must be imposed on relatives of media owners who currently get away with it by being purportedly independent financially. Government officials and media owners should keep in mind that the airwaves are a public good.