Last week, conservative Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras decided to shut down the Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation (ERT), Greece’s national public broadcaster, claiming it was necessary to plug the hole in the country’s budget deficit.
But the move outraged the leaders of the other two parties in Samaras’ ruling coalition, resulting in the departure of one of the parties from government. People have gathered in large numbers outside the ERT’s headquarters for ten consecutive nights to protest Samaras’ decision, which will throw more than 2,500 people out of work and alter the public broadcaster’s profile significantly.
Samaras’ decision is the most radical attempt to reform an institution since the start of the crisis. As such, it re-ignited mass protests, brought the government to the brink of collapse and even turned members of conservative institutions like the army and the church against him.
The massive public reaction is not only about the oldest radio and television broadcaster in the country – a public institution that symbolises free speech – but about Samaras’ attempt to establish a new form of governance, which is authoritarian in nature.
In his effort to implement his decision, Samaras has defied a court order given on Monday to re-open ERT immediately until reforms are agreed upon in a parliamentary context, claiming that the State Council allows him to proceed with his plan.
The State Council met again on Thursday, only to explicitly suspend the ministerial decree that closed the ERT, this time.
The crisis started last Thursday when government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou went live on air to announce that all public channels would go black by midnight, citing the need to be decisive in lowering spending and fighting corruption in the public sector.
“ERT costs three to seven times more than private TV stations to sustain, and it employs four to six times more employees for half the average viewing share,” he said, announcing that the government would air a new public medium with less than a third of the number of ERT’s employees sometime later in the year and operate with private contractors.
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This neoliberal narrative made false assumptions and definitions about what the purpose of a public institution like the national broadcaster actually is. The ERT is not exactly the equivalent of the BBC in terms of quality and editorial independence, but it does operate upon certain democratic principles and served the construction of the national narrative for more than 85 years.
All political viewpoints have access to ERT’s radio and TV programmes – even those of the far-right, quasi-Nazi Golden Dawn party. The stations promote culture and creativity, fund many types of artists and, unlike commercial TV stations, do not aim to maximise profits for its shareholders.
In terms of costs and spending, ERT is definitely not one of the institutions that suck money out of the public budget – quite the contrary. Its 2,907 employees operate three national TV channels, two satellite channels, five national radio stations, 19 local radio stations, and two orchestras. The ERT is funded by fees of 4.95 euros per month embedded in Greeks’ electricity bills.
According to several media reports [GR], ERT would have contributed 40.97m euros for the payment of public debt in 2013. As in every year, ERT was also expected to contribute 50 percent of its revenues to the public budget – an estimated 129m euros in 2013. Its employees have been forced to accept all of the wage cuts the public sector has suffered since the beginning of Greece’s economic crisis.
True, the ERT has been a “pocket of opacity” where corrupt politicians could get their cronies hired at high salaries, or assign contracts to their preferred production companies. In fact, the employees of the ERT and other Greek media accuse the current coalition government of doing exactly this – which makes it ironic that the political establishment is seeking to close it down in the name of honesty and fairness.
What future for public television?
Suddenly killing off a public television broadcaster has not happened in Europe since before 1950, according to Jean Paul Philippot, the president of the European Broadcasting Union. And it certainly hasn’t happened before in Greece, not even during the occupation of the country by the Nazis or the dictatorship years, as the president of SYRIZA said in a rally outside parliament on Tuesday.
There is no European country that doesn’t have public media, and that is because they play a vitally important role in the functioning of the state as we know it and the preservation of the diverse European cultures.
When the Greek government announced that it would replace ERT with a much smaller organisation using private contractors, and aiming to receive a higher viewership, it violated part of a democratic state’s social contract, which guarantees diversity and polyphony. To use the new state broadcaster as a tool for economic growth under the supervision of the finance ministry is to limit freedom of speech in Greece.
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As the Arab Spring has taught us, there’s a global demand for more freedom of speech in our times – a demand that the market economy alone cannot serve. When Hosni Mubarak decided to throw Al Jazeera out of Egypt and cut off internet access, he didn’t expect that the streets of Cairo would become an even stronger medium for the message of resistance to his rule. A similar process happened in Greece, when hundreds of websites retransmitted the ERT’s live webcast, and twitter users turned the #ert hashtag into a global trend.
Whoever has followed Tehran in 2009 or the Arab Spring knows that when a state cuts off access to media and communication, it does so either because it is in a state of panic or because it cannot hide its true authoritarian nature anymore. Both for Greeks on the streets and the 72 European public broadcasters that ran to ERT’s support, there is concern on whether public television has a future in the continent and what exactly this is.
Echoing the Turkish struggle, protesters at the ERT raised a banner at the entrance of the building reading “Samardogan” – a combination of the names of Samaras and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, meaning that in both countries the common struggle is against authoritarianism, although it may be expressed differently.
Samaras’ agenda of law, order and sufficiency in implementing the austerity programme is leading to a defiance of democratic principles, like consulting his partners in the government and voting laws in parliament. During his governance, there’s a clear trend to skip the parliamentary processes in decision-making, more and more, while implementing radical reforms based solely on ministerial decrees – and that worries Greeks.
The ERT’s case is indicative of the model of governance he’s introducing. Issue a ministerial decree first, dissolve the company, lay off thousands of people, create a de facto new status and then legitimise the decision. Even if it doesn’t get approved, everything has already changed.
Samaras is planning to use the same method with more than 30 other public organisations, so as to comply with the Troika’s demand to shrink the public sector. If he does, then democracy will be limited even further. If not, then he might be held responsible by Greece’s creditors for the failure of the austerity plan.
For ordinary Greeks, the question behind the ERT’s closure now turns out to be: Can a country have a hardline austerity programme and still practice democracy?
Matthaios Tsimitakis is a journalist based in Athens.