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Greece news media taking sides in coverage of upcoming vote

Anyone looking for an account of the big antigovernment, pro-European Union rally in the heart of the Greek capital this week can find it easily on the Skai TV network's website.

There are news articles written before and after the event, which was held Tuesday in Athens' Syntagma Square. You can watch a video of the thousands of protesters who pressed for approval of an international bailout offer for Greece in a clutch referendum scheduled for Sunday. To help you find like-minded material, the items are conveniently tagged #NAI ("yes").

If, however, you're interested in what happened at a rival pro-government oxi, or "no," demonstration the evening before, which also drew more than 10,000 people, look elsewhere. Determined hunting won't yield anything on Skai's website about those who gathered to urge rejection of the bailout offer and its tough austerity measures. Yet Skai is one of Greece's most popular news providers.

As the referendum campaigns entered full swing Thursday, polls suggested that the result remained too close to call. Voters are being asked to give a thumbs up or down to a painful financial bailout offered by Athens' international lenders, who warn that, if Greeks say no, they risk their country going bankrupt and having to reintroduce its old currency, the drachma, at fire-sale rates.

Strong emotions are in abundant supply. But impartial reporting is not.

Along with Skai TV, nearly all the mainstream press and television stations in Greece have skewed their coverage or are openly in favor of the "yes" campaign, throwing in doubt just how fair Sunday's election will be. The snap referendum has already come under criticism for being called with too little notice by the left-wing Greek government — which is urging a "no" vote — to allow for proper campaigning and educating of voters.

"There is no doubt that the coverage is overwhelmingly biased," said Nikolas Leontopoulos, an independent journalist who has investigated Greece's power structure. The line between reporting and advocacy "has totally been blurred," he said.

On Thursday, for example, the privately owned Antenna network's evening newscast aired a montage of despairing retirees lining up at a bank to claim their pensions, which then cut to images of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his outspoken finance minister. Large red letters spelled out the word "shame" in Greek as ominous music played in the background.

Tsipras said in an interview Thursday that the news media deck is stacked against him and his Syriza party, an umbrella of radical-left organizations. He insists that a victory for the "no" campaign will give him a stronger hand in negotiations with European creditors, despite every indication to the contrary.

"The Greek government is rejecting everything with the suggestion that if you vote 'no,' you will get a better or less tough or more friendly package. That suggestion is simply wrong," Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the leader of Eurozone finance ministers, told lawmakers in the Netherlands. The zone comprises the 19 nations that share the euro currency, including Greece.

In the propaganda battle, Tsipras is not without his own advantages: He has taken to giving daily televised speeches and interviews, which even networks opposed to his message feel obliged to broadcast because of the weight of his office.

He took to the airwaves again Thursday, saying that a newly released analysis by the International Monetary Fund, one of Greece's creditors, supported his — and many other analysts' — contention that Athens' staggering burden of public debt is unsustainable.

The analysis said that Greece would need at least $56 billion more in debt relief through 2018 to remain afloat, as well as its third international bailout in five years.

The second rescue package expired Tuesday night, at the same time that, separately, Tsipras' government failed to make a payment it owed the IMF. Greece is now cut off from the financial lifelines that have protected it from insolvency over the last five years.

Both sides of the referendum debate agree that the Mediterranean nation's future is on the line in Sunday's plebiscite.

But headlines in some of Greece's most prominent national papers blamed Tsipras for the country's predicament, including the right-wing Eleftheros Typos (Free Press), which proclaimed in Thursday's editions, "He is destroying Greece."

In a widely circulated examination of how the six biggest TV networks treated the rival referendum rallies Monday and Tuesday, freelance journalist Markos Petropoulos found that the pro-government "no" demonstration got about 81/2 minutes of coverage, whereas the "yes" protest received more than five times that much.

In another newscast, one network devoted 18 minutes to warnings and statements from European leaders about the breakdown of bailout negotiations with Athens and the surprise referendum announcement that had precipitated it. The Greek government's position got two minutes.

The bias toward the "yes" side reflects the fact that many of Greece's biggest news outlets are owned by corporate titans and other "oligarchs" whose business interests would be directly threatened by a "no" victory and the potential abandonment of the euro in favor of the drachma, Leontopoulos said.

To counter those forces, supporters of Tsipras and Syriza have made extensive use of digital media, said George Tzogopoulos, an expert on Greek media and politics at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, an Athens-based think tank.

"Many Greek citizens, especially young ones, are informed by online resources and by social media. Greece has a very large online market where many websites tend to offer leftist-oriented information," Tzogopoulos said.

Whether the relatively one-sided coverage by the mainstream news media will affect the outcome of the referendum is hard to tell, because public trust in them has eroded in the last few years, Tzogopoulos said.

And as is the case in other European countries such as Britain, the papers' obvious political slants tend to attract readers who already agree with those views.

On the edge of Syntagma Square, a newsstand operator named Giorgos, who declined to give his last name, has peddled newspapers to commuters and nearby office workers for 35 years. He knows all the papers well — and he doesn't think any of them are trustworthy.

"None of them tell the truth, because they all have their political leanings," he said. "Some articles by certain journalists may give you an idea of the truth, but the paper as a whole? No."

Special correspondent Pavlos Zafiropoulos in Athens and Times staff writer Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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