Opaque Government Spending and Vindictiveness in Greek Mass Media
How the Greek government strives to financially asphyxiate a weekly investigative newspaper amid the pandemic.
Τhe Mitsotakis administration has long waged war against Documento, a weekly investigative journalism outlet. Ever since the neoliberals of New Democracy won the elections last July, the government has been engaged in an all-out effort to muzzle the newspaper, on account of its reporters digging into financial scandals and the party’s nepotistic practices. Reacting against this predicament, publisher Costas Vaxevanis presented a detailed report of the silencing plot in his February 2, 2020 dispatch to David Sassoli, President of the European Parliament.
Documento has investigated and exposed trails of money laundering in Greece, undeclared assets of the infamous “Lagarde list”, the Novartis scandal, the principal role of a close political associate and personal friend of the current PM in a pedophile ring, as well as offshore companies owned by the PM’s wife -as verified by Paradise Papers. Assaulting Documento is an apparent attempt to suppress that part of the Press which upsets culprits with its exposés of black money flows.
Only recently, the government abused its pandemic-induced emergency powers and -under the pretext of raising public awareness- essentially dished out almost € 20.000.000 in subsidies to friendly media, political allies, relatives of government spokesman Stelios Petsas and New Democracy MPs, as well as journalists and owners of obscure or non-existent websites which redirected to blogs. Emergency legislation did not envisage any selection criteria whatsoever for such funding.
Soon after, the government spokesman attempted to rationalize his deeds by conjuring abstract generalities such as objectivity, reliability, morality, and ethics. Eager to hand out € 20.000.000 in taxpayers’ money without public scrutiny, the government outsourced the campaign to a private advertising company. Through such machinations, national newspaper Documento was ultimately excluded from the Covid-19 awareness campaign. From the onset, Documento’s publisher and reporters insisted that public health messages should be communicated free of charge, but it became clearer by the day that the government was sponsoring buddy-media and choking dissidents.
The issue was brought to Parliament, as numerous opposition MPs requested that the government spokesman provide clarifications and publicize a comprehensive list of sponsored media along with the funds each received. At long last, Mr. Petsas essentially admitted that certain outlets were deliberately eliminated by the government, refused to present said list, and struggled to justify our exclusion by spreading fake news. However, the content of both Documento and its sister websites (documentonews.gr and koutipandoras.gr) undeniably disproves the spokesman’s irrational claim. This wretched situation has already provoked remonstrations on behalf of the opposition and a social media upsurge.
Flashback: summer 2019. As soon as New Democracy won parliamentary supermajority, a number of businessmen cited by Vaxevanis in his abovementioned letter recounted that Documento was effectively embargoed from the advertising market by the new administration’s will.
The coronavirus escalation let the governmental cat out of the bag. In the midst of a major health crisis, the government ran the show by issuing multiple emergency decrees without prior public consultation as required by law, and pending ratification by a Parliament in which New Democracy had the absolute numerical advantage. Under unprecedented nebulosity and shortly before the lockdown was announced, the government deemed necessary to inform the public about Covid-19, and Mr. Petsas issued Ministerial Decision 179/15.03.2020 on the unpaid transmission of public health awareness messages by state-owned and private TV channels and radio stations.
However, the same emergency legislation invoked necessity to raise public awareness of the pandemic and therefore commissioned communication and information services “in derogation from applicable national law.” In reality, Mr. Petsas directly assigned “Phase B of the Awareness Campaign” to the Greek branch of a multinational advertising company called Initiative Media, which managed the distribution of an € 11.000.000 state fund to media outlets. About 40 days later, on April 25, 2020, Mr. Petsas issued yet another Ministerial Decision allotting an additional € 9.000.000 to the campaign, bringing the total state expenditure managed by a private advertising company to € 20.000.000.
Documento has been excluded from this funding, although it has been officially declared that “a professional and organized communication and awareness campaign ran until May 31st throughout all kinds of media -print publications, television channels, radio stations, websites, and social network platforms- aiming to transmit and disseminate its messages as broadly and effectively as possible.”
From day one, Documento prioritized corporate social responsibility and vouched for unpaid dispatches on this major public health issue and urged the government not to waste taxpayers’ money which could instead finance the national health system, as medical and nursing staff complained about protective equipment scarcity and staff shortages.
On April 29, 2020, 76 SYRIZA MPs addressed a parliamentary question on the government’s stance towards Documento and filed an application for the submission of documents regarding media outlets and the amount of state funding each received. Mr. Petsas finally responded after 41 days on June 9, 2020, by submitting a list of 1.232 sponsored entities. To this day, though, he still refuses to disclose the individual payments rundown, in outright violation of the transparency principle. It only took brief research to confirm that public funds were granted to nonexistent or inactive web pages, personal blogs, websites built during the pandemic (i.e. throughout May 2020), or owned by the wife of a New Democracy MP -oddly enough, Mr. Petsas is the couple’s best man.
Moreover, several sponsored outlets appealed to religious perspectives and portrayed divine communion as a harmless rite, even though the Eastern Orthodox eucharistic sacrament dictates that the priest pours wine-soaked holy bread crumbs into the mouths of the faithful using the same spoon and the same chalice; Stanford University professor John P.A. Ioannidis took a firm stand on the issue in an interview with Documento on March 15, 2020: “extensive sharing of eating and/or drinking utensils in the midst of a severe epidemic outbreak is tantamount to a suicidal or homicidal intention.” Popular TV hosts also received a pretty penny for their websites, and so did TV channels which considered it newsworthy to air a video of Mr. Petsas getting a haircut from his wife in their garden during the lockdown.
A matter of democracy and freedom of the Press
Following these developments, Mr. Petsas defended Documento’s exclusion on grounds of alleged spreading of fake news about Covid-19, consistent with the US powerplay paradigm and following in President Trump’s belligerent footsteps by attacking dissenting media with likewise unfounded claims. The spokesman’s fabrications were automatically dismissed by Documento’s front pages, reports, and interviews with renowned scientists, as well as articles debunking Covid-19 conspiracy theories. In addition to that, on March 18, 2020 (i.e. prior to the lockdown), Documento introduced a daily Covid-19 newsletter, shifted to teleworking until May 31st, and made its electronic version fully and freely accessible for two months.
Be that as it may, the government spokesman still stood his shaky ground, while the speculative “fake news” claim was tenaciously reiterated by ruling party MPs and members, verifying their intention to vilify and pulverize Documento.
Here are some points as food for thought:
• For its part, the government claims that the € 20.000.000 giveaway was meant to support Media outlets in coping with the ill-effects of the health crisis, thus undermining its fundamental claim that is aimed at bolstering Covid-19 public awareness. It is only fair to question why non-existent, obscure, and unreliable websites and blogs with unknown numbers of employees received funding while nationwide publications were excluded.
• Mr. Petsas himself admitted that media outlets were excluded for failing to meet several criteria (namely ‘objectivity’, ‘impartiality”, ‘reliability’, ‘morality’ and ‘ethics’) which he arbitrarily conjures without any legal footing, given that such standards are not mentioned in the relevant joint ministerial decisions.
• The funding processes turned opaque since public accountability was bypassed (not a single document was uploaded in the transparency portal ‘Diavgeia’), the subsidy allocation list is still shrouded in a veil of inexplicable secrecy, while several financed outlets raise eyebrows regarding their missions and pursuits (newsarcadia.blogspot.com, for example, almost exclusively posts abusive content).
• Moreover, anyone could wonder whether public grants were funneled into a black money cycle, either awarded to their recipients only to be refunded to politicians or handed out to friendlies of government officials. After all, the opacity and absence of public accountability justify such contemplations. Of course, such ploys are not unprecedented in Greece, as Justice has or still is investigating the KEELPNO and Novartis scandals when illicit funds were siphoned off to politicians or their familiars from corporations, conference participations, and advertising companies.
• It is more than obvious that the government’s domination frenzy is distorting the media landscape by undermining freedom of the Press and pluralism. To quote the representative of Documento’s reporters in his address to the Journalists’ Union of Athens Daily Newspapers (ESIEA), “this is a glaring example of a totalitarian temperament and a Press manipulation mentality that goes beyond partisanship and affects journalism as a whole. In essence, it violates the constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of the Press”, as “what the government spokesman essentially suggests -in utter institutional reversal- is that the executive is responsible for judging journalistic work, therefore to all intents and purposes abolishing the role of journalism as a means of controlling the arbitrariness of power-holders in general. Moreover, these allegations directly berate Documento’s journalists, as they emasculate their credibility and reputation.”
According to Documento’s publisher, “the attempt to obliterate our outlet is an attempt to annihilate journalism and nourish its castrated hybrids as convenient lackeys.” To the Mitsotakis administration, the Covid-19 pandemic was both an opportunity and a means to promote despotism in practice.
DISCLAIMER: Thanassis Karampatsos is the Editor-in-chief at Documento