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Tuesday, April 15, 2003


Greek TV Goes to War

The backlash began around the time US forces captured Baghdad’s airport. A handful of commentators decided to repel the onslaught of antiwar coverage unleashed by Greek television stations since the beginning of the war in Iraq. The newspaper Vima cited a study by the communications department of the University of Athens that found Greek TV reporting of events in Iraq to be an expression of its opposition to the war and US policies.

The study said that the coverage focused primarily on the failure of the shock-and-awe strategy and on pictures of captured and dead American and British soldiers and their downed helicopters. Second, reporting dwelt heavily on civilian casualties, especially children. Third, the reports spent more time on official Iraqi statements than on US and British communiqués.

The fight became nasty the next day on the talk show hosted by Elli Stae, who is something akin to Greece’s Oprah Winfrey — except that Stae focuses on politics. Deputy Education Minister Eleni Kourkoula seized on a comment made by journalist Giorgos Kyrtsos to the effect that the Greek media were soft on Saddam Hussein. Kourkoula scoffed at Stae’s protestations and said that exactly the same thing had happened during the breakup of Yugoslavia, when it took years for many Greek media outlets to describe Slobodan Milosevic as a dictator.

Stae, normally in full control of her show, tried to dismiss the claims made by her two guests by appealing to the other ones. But Kourkoula, a former star of the long-running soap opera Lampsi, knows how to hold her own onstage. The former actress hammered away until Stae conceded sheepishly that the phrase, “the dictator Saddam,” was rarely uttered by Greek TV commentators.

The Antenna channel, which produces Stae’s Me ta matia tis Ellis show and makes it available to subscribers to its satellite service to North America and Australia, was one of the unnamed privately owned channels criticized in the Athens University survey. Judging by its content, Mega Channel (and its satellite service, Mega-Cosmos) must surely also be under fire. On the same day that Vima reported the survey, a MEGA reporter in Baghdad, Sotiris Danezis, appeared with a kaffiyeh draped around his shoulders. Meanwhile, his colleague, Yiannis Kanelakis, sent a report while riding on a truck with armed Iraqis, embracing the one he was interviewing. Those Iraqis were about to go and recapture the airport, he told his audience. Over on Antenna satellite, reporter Argyris Dinopoulos stated that the American capture of the airport was not definitive, and that it meant nothing that a US plane had landed there.

To be sure, subscribers to the satellite programs of these Greek channels in the United States are seeing a much different side of the war from the one offered by CNN and the major networks. Evidently, however, a growing number of commentators in Athens are tiring of the way these stations are going about their job of reporting the war.

As US troops began their apparently easy penetration into Baghdad, the print media turned the heat on Greek television. Although public television (ERT) was at times more restrained than its competitors, the Athens daily Kathimerini criticized the network’s round-the-clock reporting from Iraq (dubbed the “tele-marathonios”), saying that the continuous antiwar images had become so repetitive that they were putting off viewers. Worse still, the newspaper added carefully, they had reached the point of becoming misinformation.

Part of the problem is the avalanche of different feeds that Greek TV stations make use of in reporting from Iraq. A single audio report by one Greek correspondent in Iraq can be accompanied by a series of pictures from a variety of stations. A viewer alert to the station logos in the corner of the screen will often record a revolving-door series of images from Al Jazeera, Abu Dhabi TV, Sky News, CNN, the major US channels, and, until Baghdad fell, Iraqi TV. At the same time, there is no indication of when the pictures were taken, hence Kathimerini’s complaints about repetitiveness and misinformation.

In addition, most news anchors tend to editorialize by commenting freely on either the picture or the reports by correspondents. More often than not, their comments are based on antiwar sentiment in Greece, rather than on any special understanding of the issues. Reporters, meanwhile, also tend to editorialize or use emotive phrases, and seem unconcerned about checking sources. Much of it has to do with their inexperience in war reporting and their habit of sensationalizing everyday stories to enhance ratings.

Needless to say, nobody knows Arabic, including the people in the studios who process the feeds from the Arab stations. An ERT sportscaster dealing with a controversial incident in a soccer match recently made light of the propensity of his colleagues to comment blithely on pictures sent by Al-Jazeera or Abu Dhabi TV. The issue was whether a referee was right in assessing a potentially game-losing penalty against Panathinaikos, currently in a two-team race with Olympiakos for the Greek championship. Prior to replaying the incident in slow motion and from several angles, he told viewers that whatever opinion he expressed, he would be deluged by complaints by fans of the other team. “I’ll tell you what we’ll do instead,” he said. “Lets pretend that these are pictures from Arab television, so there’s no commentary you can understand. So, each of you can decide what happened, on your own.”

Alexander Kitroeff teaches history at Haverford College and is a contributing editor to, which published his most recent book, Wrestling With the Ancients: Modern Greek Identity and the Olympics.
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