The Greek media’s pre-referendum propaganda and why it failed

The way several major Greek television stations covered the days preceding Greece’s referendum on July 5 is now under scrutiny of the law.

The District Attorney of Athens has begun conducting preliminary investigations following the public placement of SYRIZA, a Greek left wing political party. Several private complaints denounce the way the media handled the referendum issue citing violations of the electoral legislation.

After these incidents, the Crown prosecutor is obliged to investigate the complaints, namely whether the way these television stations covered last week’s developments violated election laws.

On top of that, after receiving numerous complaints from viewers, the Greek National Council for Radio and Television is examining all facts before proceeding to any legal action.

Nine journalists will be at the disciplinary board of the Journalists’ Union of Athens Daily Newspapers to have their ethics and journalistic code of conduct studied in light of their pre-referendum reporting. In addition, the board will also investigate a new case opened by the founder of the party “Independent Greeks,” Panos Kammenos. He presented a list of journalists who received immense amounts of money in the past five years, questioning whether it was intended for bribery or commercial purposes.

The referendum question posed by Greece’s prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, was, “Do you accept the outline of the agreement submitted by the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund at the Eurogroup meeting on June 25?” In simpler words, “Do you accept the proposals of Greece’s creditors, which the government has rejected, yes or no?’

If voters accepted the terms (NAI), new austerity measures would be imposed, such as heavier taxes, more cutbacks in pensions and salaries etc. If they rejected the creditors’ terms (OXI), the government would have to renegotiate its debt and seek new solutions to heal Greece’s bleeding economy.

In theory, the referendum question didn’t sound so complicated. So why was the majority of the population confused as to what a “yes” or “no” vote represented? That’s where the media’s confusing role began.

Several moments after Tsipras announced the referendum late at night on June 26, it was as if the world stopped and nothing else mattered for the Greek media. The only issue on television newscasts, was the referendum of July 5.

One would think it is normal for a matter of such national importance to consume the majority of television time. People would have to understand what they were voting for and what to expect depending on their choice. Here’s the trick though: what happens when the media, instead of simplifying a decisive question like this, makes it even more complicated – not to mention misleading?

The proposals made to the Greek government and rejected afterwards, were available online through the official site of the referendum. Internet access however, does not imply an understanding of the terms in order to make a wise choice between “yes” or “no”.

Not everyone has the education to understand such technical documents not to mention the time or accessibility. What about the people who live in rural villages or the elderly?

Until the day of the referendum, the major privately-owned Greek television stations gave a recital of terror. Exaggerated scenarios of the aftermath of a “No” vote prevailed, including an exit from the euro and therefore exit from the Eurozone, which would result in deeper poverty. The “experts” who appeared in newscasts and verified such scenarios were politicians of the two major parties—Nea Democratia (right wing party) and PASOK (socialist party). They had governed Greece in the past seven years and had made agreements with the IMF that led to today’s enormous debt.

The referendum question was translated and perceived as “Do you want to remain in the Eurozone, yes or no?” Even the gatherings that favorite the “Yes” vote, bore the name We remain in Europe.

Within the first days of the announcement of the referendum, people rushed to the ATMs to withdraw their money in fear they would lose it all in case Greece got kicked out of the Eurozone. The frenzy was so intense that the Capital Controls system had to be imposed to prevent the global market from crashing.

The long lines of people in front of the ATMs waiting to withdraw the €60 limit that was allowed, were a gift for the media—it was constantly shown in every newscast. To enhance the scenario of poverty and to imprint in the viewer’s mind that a “No” would be disastrous, the news showed images of people lining in super markets and gas stations in order to stock up, as if they were preparing for war.

As the date of the referendum approached, polls showed a tight battle between the “yes” and “no” sides. Still, halfway through the vote count on July 5, the results of the referendum showed a clear victory for “no.”

With 62.5 percent of Greece’s population rushing to the ballots, 61.31 percent voted “no” and 38.69 percent voted “yes”. Soon after the results, Greece’s former prime minister, Antonis Samaras, resigned as leader of the Nea Democratia party that had campaigned for the “yes” vote.

There are several reasons why the propaganda aired by Greek television stations failed to recruit more voters for the “yes” campaign. A close look on voter demographics of the “no” vote show that the average age was between 18 and 24 years old—most of them students.

With the Greek youth facing an unclear future—and with the majority of them fleeing abroad in pursuit of better living conditions—they were expected to participate in an immediate decision that would define their lives.

New age groups bring new tendencies—that was obvious in Greece’s most recent national elections when the SYRIZA left-wing government came to power.

Another look at these demographics show that the majority of the “no” voters are unemployed and face financial difficulty. By accepting the new austerity measures, these social groups would be the ones to suffer immediately. By rejecting the terms and proceeding to new discussions, no one knows what the outcome would be.

Fear did not work in this case, and these social groups played by the motto “When you have nothing, you have nothing to lose.” In addition, more than 90 percent of the “no” voters welcomed the referendum as a process, perceiving it as an immediate democratic decision where their voice would be heard.

Social media also played a crucial role before and during the referendum voting. Since the majority of the voters were young, the next, if not the first news source after television is the internet. Using hashtags such #Greferendum, #Greecereferendum, #OXI and so on, the audience had accessibility in any post, tweet, video and photo from any corner of the world regarding the referendum.

A good example is a recent video from RT, which shows how the #OXI (“no”) vote exploded on the Twittersphere. Citizen journalism took over. People on social media denounced major Greek media when they cut off the air any opposing position to the “yes” vote and gave more coverage time to their rallies.

For instance, a video shows a reporter gently pushing a pensioner away from the camera who was in an ATM line while saying, “This country has some people who are fighting to put a stop to the suicide rates and the devastation.”

Other examples include a particular media station using an archive image of 2012 from South Africa, presenting it as a visual from an ATM line in Greece after the Capital Controls system was imposed.

Another newspaper photoshopped in its front-page an image of an old man from an earthquake in 1999 in Turkey. The caption read, “Agony for a few euro: they are gambling with the anguish of the pensioners,” under the headline, “Survival guide during Capital Control.”

As the situation develops in Greece, more and more hashtags emerge to help connect the information and spread it across the globe. The most recent, #ThisACoup, became the second trending hashtag globally along with #TsiprasLeaveEUSummit, in order to protest the unfair treatment and negotiations the European Summit is forcing the Tsipras government to adopt.

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