Auditor-general Odysseas Michaelides has expanded his powers to take in press freedom as well. On Thursday, discussing the audit service’s report on the Press and Information Office (PIO) at the House watchdog committee meeting, Michaelides declared that a government scheme financially supporting the print media did not serve press freedom.
Displaying his latest expertise, he said, there was a danger that newspapers would avoid criticising the government for fear the government would change the financial support criteria in order to penalise the medium that was being critical. What had he based these theoretical fears on? Certainly not on anything that had actually happened.
The support scheme, known as de minimis, had been in place for three years, the criteria had been based on suggestions made by publishers and the journalists’ union. The subsidy was determined by the number of days a newspaper was published and the number of staff it employed for a specific period of time. These were fair and objective criteria that were not changed during the three years that the scheme was in place, even though the newspapers carried plenty of articles that ranged from mildly critical to scathing about government decisions and actions.
Did Michaelides, as the self-declared expert on press freedom, identify any such risks in the future? If he had, he did not mention them, even though he proposed that the criteria should be submitted to parliament for approval via the state budget. By Michaelides’ logic, would there not be a danger of a political party amending these criteria in a way that might benefit or penalise a specific newspaper? Why is only the government debited with the potential for such shabby and undemocratic behaviour?
Not that this is the responsibility of the auditor-general, whose job is to ensure that the money was given in accordance with the criteria set by the executive. How much money was allocated, the type of criteria and whether this money would serve press freedom are decisions within the authorities of the executive. The executive also has the authority to pay out this money without seeking parliamentary approval and it is not for the auditor-general to propose the procedure that should be followed.
Michaelides has been in his post for more than six years now but has still not learned the limits of the position’s authority, which is not unlimited. The auditor-general’s job – as the job title makes very clear – is to audit state procedures. It is certainly not to tell the executive what decisions it should take or how it should safeguard press freedom.