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Greece. A bill before Greek Parliament seeks to bring order to an industry marked by chaos, secrecy and conflicts of interest.

Tsipras challenges oligarchs of the airwaves

Syriza needed to make a statement. “The bill presented in Parliament,” they said, “is the necessary step for regulating the broadcasting industry.” After 25 years, “transparent rules are coming, capable of truly ensuring the operation of TV and radio in the country.”

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras made clear in his election campaign that this would be a priority of the government. And now he’s eager not to contradict himself.

The measure up for parliamentary vote in Athens today would lay the groundwork for new restrictions on the ownership of private television channels, reigning in an industry controlled by a powerful few with little or no oversight.

Render unto the state

To secure a broadcasting license, owners would have to pay market prices rather than the token contributions they pay now. The number of broadcasters may be limited to between five and eight, and the licenses would be granted by the National Council for Radio and Television, through an international auction.

Companies are ineligible if they owe outstanding taxes to the state. That’s particularly significant because most Greek networks are seriously exposed.

“The government is ready to implement its promises, to create a situation that is clear and transparent,” said government spokeswoman Olga Gerovasili, who added that “the number of permits certainly will be limited, proportionate to the reality of the Greek market.”

To guarantee transparency, the government wants to require that anyone seeking to hold more than 1 percent of the total capital would have to buy only registered shares (that is, shares in their own name). At the same time, digital signals would no longer be the exclusive advantage of private companies. And, crucially, the public broadcaster ERT (the Greek equivalent of NPR or the BBC) would have full autonomy.

The bill leaves many other details to the ministers. But it’s clear the government’s primary intention is to bar media oligarchs from creating an opaque system of mutual favors and overlapping interests, in which public information is wielded for corporate gain.

The government referendum last July is a prime example: As the Tsipras government sought “no” votes to increasingly savage austerity, almost every media outlet lined up in favor of “yes.”

Tangled interests

“The root of most of the problems is an unsustainable procession of loans in an underground tangle of interests and exchanges between the banking and political systems,” said Minister of State Nikos Pappas, one of Tsipras’s closest collaborators.

An editorial in the newspaper Efi­me­rida Syn­tak­ton said that, with the new bill, there finally may be disclosures about the sources of capital in the broadcasting sector and guaranteed labor rights for the people who work in the industry. At the moment, all major television networks in the country are asking their employees (that is, the ones left with jobs) to accept new wage cuts to salaries that are already 30 percent lower than they were five years ago.

The French president arrives

On Thursday, meanwhile, French President Francois Hollande arrived in Athens for a two-day visit. He was greeted by Tsipras at Athens International Airport and afterward met with Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos.

France is a well-known supporter of Athens, actively backing Greece in negotiations with creditors and sending technocrats to help the government submit counter-proposals.

Hollande will meet again with Tsipras today and give a speech to the parliament, where he is expected to reaffirm his support for debt relief for the Greek public and for the need for a more democratic Europe.