A new media outlet in Greece is bringing the people’s voice to the airwaves to report on the real impacts of austerity and responses to it.
By Anna Markopoulos and Mitchell Beer
With a brutal austerity program undercutting Greece’s civic institutions and social cohesion, a small band of citizen journalists is trying to mobilize community voices to tell a more balanced story about the country’s economic crisis.
A strong civil society and robust public dialogue are cornerstones for any sustained push for community or corporate social responsibility (CSR). But for Theodora Oikonomides and her colleagues at radiobubble, the austerity measures imposed on Greece and the government’s response to the economic crisis pointed to long-standing flaws in the country’s major institutions. Citizens responded with a wave of protests, followed by a smaller flurry of grassroot efforts to help each other cope with a crippled economy and a frayed social net.
“We don't call ourselves an alternative media outlet, but a citizen media outlet, and there's a reason for that,” Oikonomides said. “Gathering, verifying and disseminating information is a matter that all citizens should take into their own hands.”
When the Cradle Falls
As the European debt crisis triggered massive budget cuts and drove Greece to 20 percent unemployment (60 percent youth unemployment), North Americans saw Internet and TV images of streets in turmoil and a paralyzed parliament. Media began telling the story of an economy that was corrupt and inefficient—the New York Times, among others, reported on an antiquated land tenure system based on handwritten ledgers.
Last month, the Times cited Dimitris Kaloudiotis, president of Greece’s national land registry authority:
“If you calculated the total deeds that are registered, the country would be twice as big as it is.”
Oikonomides, a former teacher, international relief worker, and journalist, is no defender of Greece’s political establishment. But she said radiobubble introduced its own foreign-language coverage to tell a different, more grassroots story about day-to-day life in the midst of economic collapse.
Media Myths About Greeks
Citing data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), she disputed the notion that Greeks retire younger and work fewer hours than other Europeans (they actually work more), and has a bloated bureaucracy with more civil servants than other European countries. On all three measures, Oikonomides said the opposite is true.
“This is not only sloppy journalism or even outright misinformation," she said.
The focus on the country’s structural problems “created consensus in international public opinion that Greeks were getting what they deserve, and that austerity was the only way out.”
Limited Space for Civic Dialogue
The civic dialogue that creates space for CSR initiatives was tenuous enough in Greece before it was frayed even further by economic collapse. “The very concept of civil society did not really exist in Greece before the crisis,” Oikonomides wrote. And because the welfare state “was always weak at best,” social supports have been done away with, with the result that:
- Children are fainting in school for lack of adequate food,
- Some cancer patients have postponed treatment until “their tumors were protruding out of their bodies,”
- The extended family, Greece's main social safety net, “is falling apart, because family members can’t afford to support each other anymore,”
- The state television broadcaster, ERT, was recently shut down, just as radiobubble launched a series on press freedom,
- The neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party received 425,000 votes in national elections in 2012, a result Oikonomides attributed to “an undercurrent of authoritarian nationalism” in some segments of Greek politics, reinforced by the collapse of the mainstream right.
Solutions from the Ground Up
In an email interview earlier this month, Oikonomides traced some positive changes that came out of Greece’s austerity crisis. A series of public sit-ins in the summer of 2011 fostered dialogues that crossed boundaries of age, social status, and politics. After participants were evicted from the public squares, many of them turned their attention to community-based alternatives like food distribution, support for seniors, and free tutoring for children with learning difficulties.
“These solidarity groups have in common that there is no legal person to represent them,” she said. “It's just a group of people going out there and getting things done, without bothering to have any sort of interaction with the state or the bureaucracy.”
Meanwhile, Oikonomides said the country’s alternative media are flourishing. Quality news sites run by volunteers are multiplying, and radiobubble’s #rbnews was Greece’s second-most popular Twitter hashtag in 2012.
Facts, Not Rumors
By North American standards, there’s a radical tone to much of the community response to Greece’s economic crisis, but Oikonomides said radiobubble draws a line between reporting and advocacy.
“There is information and there is propaganda, and what we do is information, period,” she stressed. “By providing information, we enable people to make choices based on facts, not rumors, politically but also socially.”
The station uses its international broadcasts, in particular, to shine a spotlight on government mismanagement.
For Oikonomides, citizen journalists had to step up in a country that ranks 84th in the world for media freedom, according to Reporters Without Borders’ 2013 Press Freedom Index—just ahead of Kosovo, and “behind nice, friendly countries like the Central African Republic.”
Now, radiobubble is looking to a new way to empower citizens in the country known as the cradle of democracy, promising that a $50 contribution to its Indiegogo campaign will be enough to support a day of independent on-air programming while $250 pays for a month of international broadcasts in English, French, and Spanish. The campaign, which ended last week raised $10,140 out of the $50,000 target.
About Anna Markopoulos (Rotenberg)
Anna Markopoulos is a native Greek-Canadian who organized for the United Farmworkers of America. As a veteran economis,t she worked for Finance Canada, and for the International Monetary Fund and the Federal Reserve Board in Washington, DC. In 2001, she retrained to teach English as a Second Language in the District of Columbia Public Schools, where she has since served on numerous state working groups and local reform initiatives.