Time for Greece’s Fourth Estate to Step Up

By Endy Zemenides, Executive Director

The traditional concept of the European state held that there were three “estates” of the realm: the clergy, the nobility and the commoners. As modern democracies were established, the three estates terminology was applied to the separation of powers and referred to a legislature, the executive and the judiciary.

In a parliamentary debate in 1787 on the opening up of press reporting of the House of Commons of Great Britain, Edmund Burke referred to the “fourth estate,” acknowledging that although the press is not formally part of a political system, it wields significant indirect social influence. Whether through its ability to explicitly advocate, to frame issues, or to give coverage to candidates, the press has shaped policy in modern democracy as much as any branch of government.

As Greek democracy and society redefine themselves post-crisis, it is time that Greece’s fourth estate takes measure of itself. The refrain of “Greece is back” will ring empty if only Greek political leaders change (if they really change). Greece’s corporate leaders and even more importantly, its thought leaders, need to show the capacity to change as well.

Some of the immediate analyses on after the introduction of the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act (the EastMed Act) in the United States Senate prove the need for such reflection by the Greek media. In the U.S., the thought leadership reacted with headlines like “U.S. Lawmakers Talk Turkey to Ankara” or tweets like:

In further #Senate messaging to #Turkey, Menendez & Rubio introduce Eastern Med bill that seeks to bolster security & energy coop with #Greece and #Cyprus + blocks F35 if Ankara proceeds with Russian S400 (tweet by former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Amanda Sloat)

U.S. has long considered Turkey linchpin of its Eastern Mediterranean security architecture, along with Israel. This policy is changing, with Greece gradually replacing Turkey. The move [has] long term ramifications (tweet by Soner Cagaptay, Director of Turkish Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy)

Instead of similarly noting the potential for a historic shift in U.S. policy, some Greek analysts fell back on the all-too-familiar habit of complaint and conspiracy. One of the quick takes on the EastMed Act declared the section requiring reporting of Turkish violations of Greek airspace a sneaky way to reduce Greek airspace to six miles. However, (as I have confirmed) the analysts promoting this conspiracy did not contact: either of the Senators involved (or their staffs); either the Greek or Cypriot Embassies in Washington; or either of the advocacy organizations involved.

What this conspiratorial critique failed to note was that today no Turkish airspace violations of any kind are formally reported to Congress. Besides passing on the basic legwork noted above, these same analysts are apparently unaware of the full scope of Congress’ role in foreign policy.

The United States Congress is not the Hellenic Parliament. It is an independent and co-equal branch of government. The powers of Congress are detailed before (in Article I in fact) those of the Executive Branch in the Constitution. When Congress passes a law, the State Department (whose head is not merely appointed by the President, but has to be confirmed by Congress) has to execute it, not decide whether to “adopt” it.

Even if the State Department wanted to limit its reports to violations within six miles, Congress can ask for information on violations from 6 to 10 miles. This is the very point of the proposed reporting requirement. It establishes an official mechanism for these considerations and for Congressional pressure to alter Administration policies.

There have been State Department reports over the years which have been overly accommodating to Turkey. These reports didn’t change Congress’ approach to issues. In fact, Congressional pressure led to changes in Administration policies and posturing towards Turkey. On human rights, on Syria, on Yemen, on religious freedom — Congress has led on foreign policy over and over again. There is no reason to believe that it cannot do so on this front as well.

This is the type of analysis that Greece’s fourth estate owes its politicians and the Greek public. Greece is poised to play a more central role not only in the Eastern Mediterranean, not only in the Balkans, but in U.S. policy. This opportunity will pass if Greeks are not well-informed when it comes to the United States.

On at least one front, Greece is very lucky. There is an excellent Greek press corps in Washington, DC — Michail Ignatiou, Lena Argiri, Katerina Sokou, Petros Kasfikis, and Apostolos Zoupaniotis (who manages to cover DC and New York). Kathimerini has two editors — Alexis Papahelas and Tom Ellis — who served as correspondents in the U.S. and still have excellent sources here. These journalists have done the legwork, they have cultivated the sources, they have spent endless hours in Congressional hearings, think tank events, and governmental briefings. Understanding DC starts with them, not by getting fed bits of information, chasing interviews only with politicians and personalities — as if getting information from staffers is degrading, and making an occasional trip to the U.S.

If Greece is to make the most of its recent prominence in American strategic thinking, its fourth estate has to play a more responsible role. Just like every other sector, it is time for the Greek press to raise the bar.