ATHENS Greece cut back sharply on Friday on the number of television channels operating in the country, awarding just four broadcasting licences to an industry authorities say is mired in mismanagement and corruption.
Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras's left-led government has said the move will help regulate the sector and is in line with its international bailout obligations. The local industry says, however, the policy will curb free speech and shut down stations, putting thousands of people out of work.
With only four licenses were offered, some of the eight private channels now broadcasting nationwide will have to close.
Athens raised an unexpected 246 million euros ($275 million)from the licence auction. The starting price of the licenses was 3 million euros and the final price ranged between 43.6 and 75.9 million euros, a lot higher than the bidders initially expected.
The bidders will have 15 days to pay the first tranche of the amount, after their wealth and tax declarations are assessed.
Skai TV won the first licence, allowing it to stay on air. But it was critical of the process.
"We were not contesting a licence, we came to negotiate ransom," said Costas Kimbouropoulos, Skai's representative.
The government, elected on promises to take on "the oligarchs", many of who run TV stations, has said the move will help bring order to the sector, which is in debt and generally discredited because of its political links.
Authorities said four channels was an appropriate number of broadcasters which could stay viable, based on advertising industry estimates of the television commercial market worth about 280 million euros annually.
Broadcasters, who have mounted a legal challenge to the process, say the auction was little more than an attempt to gag critics, but they still took part.
Antenna TV and two new entrants, Greek ship owner Evangelos Marinakis and contractor Yannis Kalogritsas, also won a licence after a bidding round held over three days.
Tsipras signed up to a new international bailout in July last year, the country's third since 2010. Keen to convince its lenders that it qualifies for more cash and debt relief, Athens has agreed to a wave of unpopular measures including pension cuts and tax hikes.
On Friday, he said "each euro of the amount" raised would be used to support the vulnerable.
"It sends a message to foreign investors that there are rules in this country... that governments will no longer be playing political games awarding projects," Tsipras said.
Existing operators who failed to secure a licence, among them Star channel and Alpha TV, will have 90 days before going off air, the government said. Mega TV, the first private station which aired in Greece in 1989, did not qualify for the auction because of outstanding debts.
The government has called the country's media "vampires" living on borrowed funds that they cannot repay.
In a country where up to a fourth of its national output has been wiped out, media, along with a business and a political elite are frequently cited by ruling politicians as being part of an establishment responsible for Greece's current woes.
State Minister Nikos Pappas, who oversaw the auction and is one of Tsipras' closest aides said on Friday that Greece now has "TV channels which will inform Greek people objectively ... not depending on their owners' links to the political leadership."
Opposition parties have accused the government of launching the auction to bring in new business players, more friendly to a party that swept to power for the first time last year and may have less influence over the state mechanism and private sector.
"The government wants to control information ... and secondly it wants to create a system of corruption that can be controlled," said Anna-Michele Asimakopoulou, a lawmaker with the conservative New Democracy party on Tuesday.
($1 = 0.8947 euros)
(Additional reporting by Angeliki Koutantou; Editing by Michele Kambas and Simon Cameron-Moore)