Greece's media buckles under strain of financial crisis
- 23 August 2012
- From the section Europe
Greece's media have had the challenge of covering one of the country's most newsworthy periods - the imploding economy and its effect on society. But cuts and falling revenue are damaging their ability to cover the crisis.
The studios lie empty, the control rooms dark and locked-up. Outside on the gate flutters a banner reading: "The workers of Alter are not slaves."
For nine months, this once-popular television station has been occupied by its staff. They man the entrance on shifts, working around the clock. But no programmes are produced and the channel's signal is dead. This is the face of a media in crisis.
Two years ago, Alter started delaying the pay cheques of its employees. After four months without salaries, the staff began a go-slow. Some money came, but it soon dried up. Then the strike began in earnest last November.
Nikos Spyreas is - or was - one of the technicians on the channel, operating the outside live broadcasts. He used to earn 1,300 euros (£1,025) a month, but has not been paid for over a year. Now he tries to survive on a monthly unemployment benefit of 360 euros.
"I don't pay my bills, I live off loans from my family and I can't pay my taxes," he tells me, at the start of a night shift guarding the building. "Before, we all had a good life but we worked for it. Now we can't afford to go for coffee. Earlier this year, people came to deliver us food here that we distributed among staff."
Alter was a classic example of where Greece and its media went wrong. The owners were tycoons, taking out endless loans to build an empire comprising newspapers, radio stations and television channels.
They are accused of tax evasion, for which one of the owners is now in prison. As the recession hit here and advertising revenue plummeted, the channel soon found itself unable to repay what it had borrowed; one estimate placed Alter's debt at 500m euros.
Now the employees say they are waiting one more month for payment. Failing that, they will prosecute the company at an employment tribunal, forcing it to declare bankruptcy, for which the staff would receive a small pay-out.
"Alter was a microcosm of everything that was rotten in Greece," says Mr Spyreas. "Going mad with money that it didn't have."
Other media have fallen foul of the same vice as Greece's financial crisis ripples through every sector of society. An estimated 4,000 jobs in the media have been cut since the recession hit.
Perhaps the most shocking closure of all was that of the highly respected left-leaning daily Eleftherotypia.
Founded after the fall of Greece's dictatorship in 1975, it was the second-most-read newspaper in the country, with more than 800 employees. It was a rare voice of independence and impartiality - a voice silenced arguably when it was most needed.
Yannis Bogiopoulos was a sub-editor in the political section until the employees began strike action last December over a lack of payment. Since then he and some colleagues have produced six editions of the paper off their own bat. They hope to restart the publication under self-management and with their own resources.
"The closure of Eleftherotypia is a big loss for Greece," Mr Bogiopoulos says. "It was unlike most media here, which is owned by people with other interests. Most journalists won't say anything against the businesses that have given them loans, for example. We must feel free to report on the politicians who have stolen from the state - Eleftherotypia did that."
He pauses to reflect on what Greece's media scene could yet become.
"We will turn into George Orwell's 1984 if we don't get honest, reliable reporting. Lack of information breeds racism and nationalism. Journalism is part of democracy. If Greece wants democracy, it has to reinvent journalism."
The country that invented the very notion of democracy now ranks just 70th in press freedom in a list compiled by the organisation Reporters Without Borders, dropping 40 places in the last five years.
Now, torn by the worst financial crisis in their modern history, Greeks crave an honest source of information. The disillusionment with mainstream media runs deep, with blogs and community radio stations like the online broadcaster Radio Bubble flourishing instead.
They have filled the niche, narrating and analysing the complexities of the crisis that much of the established media have failed to do.
"The traditional press has not adapted to the new landscape of the social media," says Nikos Xidakis, editor-in-chief of Kathimerini, one of the few other respected dailies here. "And some of the big media houses are in the grip of business moguls who push their agenda through the press. For too long, the media here has behaved like it was the government: now it is being punished for that."
There is of course an argument that the Greek media scene was previously saturated - that a country of 10 million people simply didn't need a dozen television channels, more than 20 national newspapers and countless radio stations, and that quantity has been prioritised over quality.
And so perhaps, like so much in Greece, the media is simply being cut down to size.