Tag Archives: City of Athens

The bell tolls

Whereas the first round of local elections made losers of PASOK, New Democracy and the other parties that had tried to turn the municipal and regional votes into a battleground for national politics and the memorandum/anti-memorandum debate in particular, the second round has produced a couple of clear winners.

The independent candidacies of Giorgos Kaminis in Athens and Yiannis Boutaris in Thessaloniki have been a breath of fresh air in these polls, which the representatives of the longstanding political system have tried to drag into the gutter, and their victories provide hope that a wind of change is now gathering in Greece.

Their candidacies are significant because they are both figures that have risen out of real life rather than the smoky backrooms of the tightknit political club that has come to dominate, and choke, Greece over the last few decades. Although PASOK and Democratic Left supported both Kaminis and Boutaris, their backing did not dominate or colour their campaigns.

In fact, in PASOK’s case it was so weak, the Socialists can certainly claim no credit for the victory of either man. In fact, this very loose association with PASOK, and thereby the political establishment that people have come to despise, probably did both men a great deal of good.

Their election is also a victory for all those that chose to ignore the wall of noise created by the parliamentary parties about austerity measures, the IMF, the memorandum and so on. It is a victory for citizens that thought deeply about the problems of their neighbourhoods and decided to support people who wanted to improve their cities rather than enhance a party’s standing on the national stage.

Finally, the victories of Boutaris and Kaminis provide hope for those that believe Greece’s future lies in a rejection of its confrontational, self-obsessed and unproductive past. They give further credence to the belief that the way forward for the country must be for those who want a fairer, progressive and productive society to reclaim this land.

Given these notable victories and the incredibly low turnout of about 47 percent, PASOK and New Democracy would do well to refrain from claiming moral victories. It is for them that the bell tolls tonight and, like Greece, if they don’t change quickly they will be soon be wallowing in irrelevance.

Nick Malkoutzis

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On AIR

Illustration in linocut by Manos Symeonakis

As far as walks to work go, it was pretty inspiring: exiting the train station to see the Acropolis in the predawn darkness, like a faint chalk outline on a blackboard, before heading along the cobbled street that runs past the ancient Kerameikos cemetery, where Pericles delivered his famous funeral oration in 431 BC.

After that early morning blast of history, arriving at the headquarters of Athens International Radio (AIR) 104.4 FM at the old gasworks in Gazi often felt like an anti-climax. But I came across much that was inspiring during the year I spent at AIR, where a small and determined team countered limited resources and bureaucratic obstacles with humor and hard work to produce programs that were at times as rough as a lump of quartz but often as refined as the quartz movement of a quality timepiece.

AIR was established by the City of Athens ahead of the 2004 Olympics to provide visitors with information and entertainment in English, French, German, Spanish and Italian. Its success gave it a lease on life beyond the confines of the Games and a steady stream of languages were added to the programming schedule, reaching a total of 16, from Urdu to Tagalog, this year. No longer just a point of reference for tourists, the station had become a vital source of news for the patchwork of foreigners for whom Athens is home, not just a stop on their vacation. AIR was also the local broadcaster for Radio France Internationale, Deutsche Welle, China Radio International and the BBC World Service – the best that world radio has to offer.

But all this stopped on September 16 when a prosecutor unexpectedly shut down AIR’s transmitter. Two weeks on, the station is still only available via the Internet as the legal wrangle continues. It remains unclear what prompted the prosecutor’s action but at the heart of the problem lies the fact that AIR was only granted a temporary license in 2004, which it continued to use to broadcast over the next six years.

It may seem perfectly natural that a station without a proper license should be shut down but things are not that straightforward in the world of Greek radio. The first commercial radio licenses were issued in the late 1980s and over the next decade governments handed out permits with complete abandon, creating such bedlam on the airwaves that you needed the dexterity of a safe cracker to tune your dial to the station of your choice. In 1999, the then PASOK government, and its Media Minister Dimitris Reppas (now the transport minister), decided it would corral the rapidly rising number of stations by refusing to issue any more licenses. But the stations that already had permits were allowed to continue broadcasting until the creation of an evaluation procedure to decide whether they could remain on air. Eleven years later, that procedure still does not exist.

In fact, there have been only two attempts to place any kind of limitations on broadcasters. The first was in the runup to Athens International Airport opening in March 2001, when authorities wanted to keep the airwaves free from interference. Stations in Attica were issued with licenses that would have to be renewed every four years. Since then, no review has taken place and the radio stations are operating with the same licenses. The previous New Democracy government drew up a so-called “frequency map” detailing which frequencies could be used. Its initiative was passed into law but the legislation has never been applied.

The end result of this sorry tale is that Greece now has more than 900 commercial, municipal, church and student radio stations operating in a quasi-legal status. That’s an inordinate number for a country of some 11 million people: in the UK, which has a population roughly six times as large, there is less than half that number of stations. Athens has twice as many commercial stations (41), as London. Even the Hania Prefecture on Crete, home to about 150,000 people, has more stations (30) than London. The island of Chios, with just over 50,000 permanent residents, has a little way to go to catch up: it has just 17 stations – one for every 3,000 residents.

Rather than an example of Greece’s refreshing liberty and polyphony, these ridiculous numbers hide something more sinister. The failure since the late 1980s to regulate this industry is a symptom of Greece’s patron-client relationship. Governments did not want to close down stations or refuse licenses for fear of losing influential friends, while radio served as a useful pulpit for politicians to spread their word. Then, there is the issue raised this week by Athens mayoral candidate Giorgos Kaminis, who accused Athens Mayor Nikitas Kaklamanis of employing big-name journalists at the city’s municipal radio station, Athina 984, in order to guarantee their acquiescence. Kaklamanis denies this is the case but if it’s not happening in Athens, then it surely is in other parts of the country, where municipal stations are an easy way to put family and friends on the local government payroll.

So, in the midst of this feeding frenzy, AIR – a station that is run on a shoestring budget and has maintained a dignified independence on national and local political issues – seems like an unworthy scapegoat. With the city’s population becoming more diverse and when there are already so many stations that do little else but play Lady Gaga’s latest hit seven times a day, surely we can find room for a station that updates myriad nationalities about events. At a time when racial disunity and ethnic disharmony are increasing threats in the Greek capital, there must be a place on the city’s airwaves for a station that is both in the community and of the community.

In the UK, authorities realized at the start of the last decade that strict licensing laws meant some communities felt their voices were not being heard. The response was the Community Radio licensing system, under which applicants must demonstrate that their proposed nonprofit station will meet the needs of a specific, underserved section of the population. The area in which the stations can broadcast is limited and they are not allowed to raise more than 50 percent of their operating costs from one source, nor can they compete for advertising with commercial stations.

The scheme has proved a successful way of empowering communities and filling the void that the national broadcaster, the BBC, and commercial stations could not. It’s time that Greece looked at a similar scheme as part of a wider effort to regulate its airwaves, especially if it means that stations like AIR are allowed to provide their listeners with a vital public service and even occasional moments of inspiration.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on October 1, 2010.

Good morning, Mr Mayor

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

“When the burdens of the presidency seem unusually heavy, I always remind myself it could be worse. I could be a mayor,” the late US President Lyndon Johnson said, summing up the oft-unhappy lot of the man or woman who chooses to take charge of a municipality. Having to contend with a distillation of the challenges that governments face at a national level, but in many cases with nowhere near as much power, mayors often fight losing battles. In fact, it’s often a surprise that people run for this office. Nevertheless, with local elections in Greece looming on November 7, like jumbo jets waiting for clearance to land, mayoral candidates are lining up on the horizon.

Just this week, Costas Gioulekas, briefly a deputy interior minister in the previous New Democracy government and a current MP for the conservatives, announced his candidacy for mayor of Thessaloniki. His move highlighted that mayoral candidates seem to fit into one of two broad categories: politicians who have tried their hand at national politics but whose ineffectiveness has ensured a return to local backwaters and those who want to use city hall as a stepping stone to a bigger stage. Gioulekas, who says he will run as an independent, vanished without a trace during his spell at the Interior Ministry, where he was in charge of relations with the press – a hapless spin doctor who watched dizzily as New Democracy spun out of office.

Another former member of the conservative government who has just announced his intention to run later this year is Athens Mayor Nikitas Kaklamanis. Since taking over at City Hall in January 2007, the former health minister has proved compassionate but controversial. His time as mayor has been marked by both significant achievements and glaring oversights.

Kaklamanis’s election campaign slogan was: “I don’t have a lot to say, I have a lot to do.” Critics claim he delivered exactly the opposite, saying a lot but doing little. His supporters argue he’s had to continuously fight fires because of the growing social problem – linked to immigration, poverty and crime – in central Athens.

The “City Mayors” website, which runs mayor-related news from around the world and allows residents to give their city hall supremo marks out of 10 each month (Kaklamanis averages at about 6.3 this year) carries some comments that are indicative of how Athenians feel about the Andros-born politician.

“Nikitas Kaklamanis is a very simple person who understands our problems in Athens and stands by us,” writes Gogo. “He looks after poor people, immigrants, children and old people. Every day and night, people eat at a ‘social restaurant’ and can take clothes and shoes and have medical care.”

Kaklamanis’s record in caring for society’s most vulnerable is certainly respectable. His municipality has set up a supermarket and pharmacy where the poor can shop for free or at subsidized prices. A similar scheme for clothes saw more than 1.6 million euros’ worth of goods being distributed last year. With the help of the Church of Greece, the City of Athens serves 5,600 free meals a day. The municipality has also opened a hostel for homeless people, where, unfortunately, a 53-year-old man tragically fell to his death this week. All of these are laudable initiatives but many Athenians are asking: “Is that it?”

“Kaklamanis consistently makes empty promises – lots of hype and no action,” writes Panos P on Citymayors.com. “When good things happen, like the refurbishment of a park, it is never managed properly. Why redo Monastiraki Square and then allow it to be vandalized every night? Where is the mayor promoting Athens as a tourist destination? Where is the mayor cleaning the center so tourists don’t need to look at trash and graffiti? Where are the municipal police stopping people from driving on pedestrianized streets?”

These gripes, and many more, will be familiar to Athenians who feel that Kaklamanis has fallen short of what’s required. They would point out that at least 800,000 people live within the boundaries of the City of Athens and that not all of them are destitute immigrants or families with four children who can’t make ends meet. There is a distinct feeling that in dealing with the fallout from the worsening economic situation and the influx of undocumented migrants, he has forgotten that he has a majority, not just a minority, to tend to as well.

The efforts to clean up central Athens, to make it safer and more livable have simply not worked. It still feels dirty and disorganized. Athenians tend to have brief flings with the city center, dipping in for shopping or drinking and then scurrying away again, rather than a long-term relationship in which they invest in its upkeep.

Kaklamanis has taken a leaf out of former London Mayor Ken Livingstone’s book in terms of being a social crusader, but “Red Ken’s” success largely stemmed from the fact that he made residents want to live with their city rather than just live in it. Livingstone, for instance, set an example by using public transport and mounted a successful campaign to get more people to use buses. Between 2000 and 2008, bus usage went up by 6 percent each year. Any mayor’s first goal should be to act as a figurehead that can mold the identity of a city and stoke its citizens’ interest and pride. London had this under the far-from-faultless Livingstone. Athens has lacked it under Kaklamanis.

However the caveat to all this is that the mayor of Athens is hemmed in by unenviable bureaucratic and political constrictions. When the Labour government created the post of London mayor in 2000, it ensured that the successful candidate would have a good degree of control over policy areas such as environment, public transport and policing. The Athens mayor has none of this. To get most things done, the City of Athens has to engage in the type of brokering with ministries that makes the Cyprus reunifcation talks look like a gathering of old friends. Too often the ministries and the municipality will blame each other for the lack of action, and responsibility for improving the city will fall into a convenient gap created by bureaucracy and political differences.

Perhaps this means that the candidates applying for the job should not be politicians worn and torn by the demands of national politics, nor those that find it convenient to dump the blame for failure at the government’s door without realizing that mayors are also part of a government, local government. At this critical juncture, Athens needs a man or woman who is passionate about the city, a politician who can inspire its citizens. It needs someone who will say little and do a lot. Kaklamanis has only got a few more months to prove that he’s the man for the job.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on July 23, 2010.