Reporters Without Borders visited Athens from 27 July to 3 August to investigate in a report the recent decline in media freedom in Greece, a country that continues to worry its European partners. Greece has fallen three years in a row in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, from 31st in 2008 to 70th in 2010, level with its neighbour Bulgaria. The fall has been due to practices that are both surprising and unacceptable in a European Union member.
The economic and financial crisis has contributed to this decline and has above all highlighted the weaknesses of Greece’s media and its almost mafia-like practices. Owned by a few big businessmen and shipping-line owners, most of the media companies are nowadays threatened with collapse, which would set of a wave of dismissals in a profession already suffering from poor pay and conditions.
The blogosphere offers a freer space for expression and a temporary antidote to the self-censorship that is becoming more and more widespread in the traditional media. But the Internet does not offer an economically viable alternative that could help reverse the disastrous practices that have taken hold in the past two decades. Against the backdrop of street violence, a very deep crisis of confidence has developed between the media and public. Seen either as louts or well-off brats, journalists are often identified with the now despised political class. Many now fear physical violence and some use protection.
The targets of smear campaigns that mix sarcastic slogans with death threats, journalists now think twice about going out on to the streets to report. Stelios Kouloglou, long the symbol of investigative journalism, is now the victim of a defamatory poster campaign. His crime? Laying off staff at his Web TV station because it ran into financial problems.
Although less exposed than their Greek colleagues, foreign reporters based in Greece recognize that they face problems that are unusual in a European Union member. But they prefer to be discreet on the subject because, like their Greek colleagues, they fear the possibility of reprisals or violence.
The impact of the crisis has radicalized a sector of the population, which expresses its anger and frustration in increasingly violent demonstrations. Photographers and cameramen are more and more at risk as they encounter situations akin to civil war in the course of trying to cover the activities of these grass-roots movements. Caught between the violence of the extremist movements and the violence of anti-riot police who show little respect for their professional status, photographers are paying a high price for the coverage they give us.
No journalists were upbeat about the consequences of the austerity plans and cuts, but Reporters Without Borders found that most of the ones it interviewed regarded the economic crisis as a chance for the media to break with the patronage system that has prevailed since the 1980s. Could the crisis help advance the cause of media freedom in Greece?
Photo credits : Thomas Lacobi