Greek top court says government-led auction on TV licenses is flawed

ATHENS, Oct 27 (Reuters) - Senior Greek judges ruled on Wednesday an auction of TV licences held by the left-led government in September was flawed, throwing into disarray a crusade by authorities to shake up an unregulated broadcasting sector.

The Council of State, Greece’s top administrative court, ruled that the auction process which handed out four TV licences was unconstitutional, a court official said.

The auction procedure had effectively set a limit on the number of nationwide broadcasters to four, from eight which now exist. Wednesday’s court decision, taken by a majority, said the auction process was flawed from the outset because it sidestepped the official decision making body known as the ESR.

Private radio stations and TV channels emerged in Greece only in the late 1980s, after decades of state media control.

Under the constitution, they are supervised by an independent authority, the National Council for Radio and Television (ESR) and its members are appointed by parliament, by majority.

Greece’s main government party, the leftist Syriza, and the main opposition, the conservative New Democracy party, had failed to agree on the composition of the broadcasting authority, leaving their positions vacant.

Tsipras’s closest aide, State Minister Nikos Pappas, has been overseeing the auction and handling media issues since then.

Licensing TV companies has been a rallying cry of Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s government since it was first elected in 2015, vowing crack down on corruption and clientilism it perceived was pervasive in the sector.

According to government officials, the court decision may determine Tsipras’s next political moves and lay the ground for a planned cabinet reshuffle, aimed at boosting his Syriza party’s popularity ratings which have been dropping for months.

The cash-strapped leftist government secured 246 million euros from last month’s auction. Following the decision, authorities are expected to return to the four winning bidders a first tranche already paid to the state.

Government spokeswoman Olga Gerovassili said in a televised statement that the court ruling was binding but was also “taking the country back to the previous unconstitutional situation”.

She said the government would table a bill to parliament on Monday giving TV channels permissions to operate until new licenses are awarded. (Reporting by Constantinos Georgizas and Renee Maltezou; Editing by Alistair Bell)