The ERT saga in Greece

The ERT saga in Greece

Since June 11th, millions of Greek viewers and listeners both in Greece and abroad, have been denied normal access to their Hellenic Public Radio and Television after the Greek government decided to close ERT accusing it of being a “center of corruption,” to be replaced by a “newer, cleaner public company” at the earliest opportunity.

The sudden assassination of a public broadcaster, unseen so far in Europe, caused a huge uproar by such players as the European Parliament, the Council of Europe, the EBU, press associations as well as more than 50 Directors General of European Public Broadcasters.

An order by the Greek Supreme Administrative Court, to recall its decision and allow ERT to operate until it can be restructured, was not adhered to by the Greek government, which is still keeping ERT screens “black,” considering its personnel laid-off and the company dissolved. The government interpreted the court’s decision as a go-ahead to dissolve ERT and set up a new public broadcaster.

Defying the order to vacate the premises, ERT personnel are refusing to leave their work place and continue broadcasting “as usual” via internet hosts. The issue of ERT brought about a government crisis which led one of the coalition partners to pull out of the government last Friday leaving a two-party coalition with a slim majority of two in the parliament.

“The main reason why the Samaras government wanted to close down ERT was political,” says Greek media Professor George Pleios. “Although it had placed its own Director General and special advisors in charge, it could not manage to exercise absolute control.”

Indeed ERT employees objecting to a plethora of new managers and programs imposed by the new tripartite Samaras government one year ago began prolonged strikes during important events like the prime minister’s trip to China which the government wanted to publicize and Angela Merkel’s trip to Athens. They even forced the government to re-recruit two popular presenters who had quoted a story on the Guardian newspaper of Greek police torture of detainees.

At a time of a highly unpopular austerity program imposed to a suffering society, a public broadcaster where journalists are keeping principles of fair reporting, democracy and pluralism could not be tolerated by the government struggling also to prove its commitment to the tough terms of the bailout agreements among which are drastic cuts to the public sector.

However, the “blackening” of ERT did not cause reactions among private media owners already suffering from a three-year recession, a switch of the public to internet and a dramatic loss of advertising revenue.

But there may be a more sinister reason.

“Behind the closure of ERT lies the alliance between an ultra conservative Samaras and his government, private media owners and the fascistic party of Golden Dawn, which would not like a democratic, tolerant institution, open” says Prof. Pleios.

The insistence of ERT employees to keep on broadcasting was met by unprecedented public support. Thousands of ordinary citizens have been camping on the grounds of ERT’s headquarters in Athens, while scores of intellectuals, artists, musicians, are lending their support with free performances and shows. ERT itself has opened its studios to debates on such touchy subjects as labor rights, freedom of speech, immigration, public health and neo-liberal politics.

Nobody knows yet what will be the fate or ERT. But the intensity of public reaction already bore results, says Prof. Pleios. “It has cancelled Samaras’s decision to keep ERT closed or to be transferred under a single-party control as was originally planned. It prevented him from imposing a “Thatcherite” policy. It damaged his prestige internationally and erased the hope of Greece’s creditors that he may realize the bail-out agreements. From the media point of view, ERT made use of new technologies by sending its signal via hundreds of internet sites and social media; it adopted a new cooperative method of new production and content, it managed to host all views and voices and finally achieve unprecedented ratings never achieved in its history: 2.8 million single users were watching its program last Friday just from the EBU site.

In short, it is a fascinating yet dramatic story of politics, media and democracy. To be continued.