The closure of Greece’s public broadcaster is not just about austerity: it is part of the governments’ attempt to suppress independent media criticism.
A wide variety of interpretations is doing the rounds on the closure of the Greek public broadcaster ERT. The most persistent is surely the idea that the Greek government wanted to kowtow to the Troika of foreign lenders (EU, ECB and IMF), which has been pushing the harshest and most inhumane austerity measures in the history of the EU down the throats of the Greek people ever since 2010.
The fact that the IMF recently declared a remarkable mea culpa — admitting in an official report that it ‘miscalculated’ the impact of austerity, that the budget cuts actually had ‘averse consequences’, and that the Greek people and economy have ‘suffered unnecessarily’ as a result — doesn’t change a thing. By the end of 2013, Greece will have to fire another 4,000 public employees and save billions of euros, with another 15.000 public sector jobs to be axed by the end of 2014.
The prime minister pushed through the closure of ERT with a decree signed by the president. Without any debate in parliament, without passing a single bill. It was a unilateral decision on the part of prime minister Samaras of the conservative New Democracy party, without any consultation of his social-democratic coalition partners PASOK and DIMAR. And thus Greece saves, in one foul swoop, some 300 million euros — while sending 2.656 public servants home without any prior warning.
The government itself denies the interpretation that sees it kowtowing to the Troika, and Olli Rehn, the European Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs, was quick to declare that the European Commission itself ‘had not asked for ERT’s closure’. Still, the decision to shut down ERT came right after the ignominious failure of the government’s Troika-imposed attempt to privatize the Greek Gas Cooperation. That, in itself, is food for thought. Was it an emergency move? A panic attack? An attempt to distract attention from the failed privatization of the gas company? No one knows for sure.
One thing, however, is absolutely clear: as even a Greek court just acknowledged, the closure of the ERT violates virtually all democratic laws and principles. The fact that the Greek government was not able to pursue its ‘broadcasting reforms’ in a decent and democratic fashion is symptomatic of the state that the country currently finds itself in. So far, the salaries of Greek officials have been cut 40 to 50 percent, but most of them have not (yet) been fired. The majority of Greece’s 1.3 million unemployed originate from the private sector. What if the closure of ERT sets a precedent? What if the ERT workers are guinea pigs? If that is the case, thousands of officials from other Greek state institutions that are scheduled to be privatized or reformed could lose their jobs through the same fundamentally undemocratic procedures. It is obvious that there need to be reforms in the civil service. The problem is the way in which they are being pursued.
But there is another story here. Both the previous government and Samaras’ current coalition have given the ERT three years to reorganize itself, to rid itself of the “bad apples” on its paylist, and to combat the extensive corruption at the heart of the organization. After all, it has been an open secret for decades that the ERT management was made up of a bunch of fraudulent thieves (managers often outsourced ERT productions to companies of families or friends at excessive prices, appropriating part of the sum for themselves), bulged with government-appointed bosses and directors (every new government, both of the left and the right, doled out extremely well-paid ERT jobs to their friends), cost the absurdly unjustifiable amount of 300 million euros, had extremely low view ratings and boasted a marginal market share of only 10 percent.
The ERT board, however, did not appear to be up for the task of ‘self-cleansing’, because there was always some manager who ‘refused to give up his or her privileges’, while ERT workers went on strike at virtually any indication that their jobs might be in danger. With such resistance, you cannot simply fire these workers. What you can do, however, is simply abolish their positions altogether. By pulling the plug on the ERT as a whole, the government instantly rid itself of 2.656 arduous and protracted civil servant dismissal procedures.
To legitimize his decision, Samaras claimed the ERT to be a ‘place of opacity, misrule and corruption’ and announced that a new broadcaster would be set up in August with a budget of a mere 100 million euros and with only 1.000 employees who will officially cease to be public employees. Go ahead. To the layman this probably does not sound unreasonable. There are even many Greeks who say ‘chapeau, well done, let’s get rid of everyone and start with a clean slate, that’s the only way to go in this hopeless country of ours’.
But to those who are slightly more informed, Samaras’ statements are not just extremely ironic but downright misleading. First of all, when it comes to a ‘lack of transparency, mismanagement and corruption’, the ERT pales in comparison to parliament and Samaras’ own government. Moreover, when he was appointed prime minister in June 2012, Samaras himself appointed as many as 28 people to the ERT’s highest managerial level at extremely high salaries. One particularly flagrant example is that of Mattina Retza, once employed by a regional radio broadcaster, who was appointed to take care of the ERT’s public relations for 4.000 euros per month, but who allegedly never even set foot inside her office. Or how about the director of a football club who was suddenly appointed an ERT boss without knowing anything about media?
Did Samaras get sick and tired with his own marionettes inside the ERT? Was there a mutiny? Did he appoint the wrong people? We generally do not get to read about these type of questions. So the key question is: is it even possible to start with a ‘clean slate’? Who will guarantee that the new and slimmed-down broadcaster will be truly independent? Who will guarantee that it will not be corrupt?
Meanwhile, those Greeks who barely watched ERT — except for those expats of the Greek diaspora far abroad — appear to have re-discovered “their” broadcaster. In the tens of thousands they are demonstrating in Athens and Thessaloniki, conveniently forgetting the fact that ERT was not only a conduit for their own corrupt politicians (journalists who criticized ministers or parliamentarians were summarily demoted or fired), but also extremely nationalistic (the famous documentary Cry from the Grave about the massacre at Srebrenica has been broadcast everywhere, even in Serbia, but not in Greece, because most Greeks still feel solidarity with Karadzic, Mladic and the late Milosevic, and still refuse to acknowledge what really happened in the war in Yugoslavia). Moreover, the ERT was very, very old-fashioned (it continuously broadcast poorly made DDR-like folkloric reports full of Greek dances, and endlessly repeated the childish Greek black-and-white films of the fifties, even though this was greatly appreciated by a particular audience).
Exit ERT? This is striking the average Greek citizen right at his heart, undermining his culture, depriving him of his identity. The popular anger is great, even though hardly anyone was actually watching ERT shows. “It’s a crappy broadcaster, but keep your hands off of it!” Now Greece has indeed been delivered to the horrible commercial channels of the Greek media tycoons, with their ‘beyond-Berlusconi’ crap on TV. Catch 22: of all the TV-evils, and despite all its flaws, ERT was clearly the least evil. After all, under the aegis of the fraudulent government-appointed ERT board, there actually was a small group of extremely honest and competent journalists, editors and technicians. They have now been mercilessly sacrificed at the altar of austerity.
Incidentally, all owners of the Greek commercial broadcasters turn out to have at least something to do with the infamous Lagarde list: the list of names of Greek citizens who have accounts in a Swiss bank and who are potential tax evaders; the list that the Greek finance minister once received from IMF chief Christine Lagarde herself, and which was subsequently ‘lost’ for three years; the list that finally ended up in the hands of investigative journalist Kostas Vaxevanis, who published it, as a result of which that same finance minister is now being examined by a Greek parliamentary inquiry committee, because he is suspected of removing the names of three of his own family members.
Either way, whatever they may be say about it, everyone agrees that the closure of ERT is yet another slap in the face of Greece’s press freedoms. Last year, the country once again dropped 14 spots on the global press freedom index. On Tuesday, riot police invaded ERT premises and studios throughout the country to literally pull the plugs on the orgainzation. After midnight, the transmitters at the central headquarters in Athens were targeted, in scenes that reminded many of the dark days of the junta. Support for the ERT workers, who have occupied the ERT studios and who have, with the aid of the European Broadcasting Union and the Greek telephone company OTE, continued to broadcast via internet, is still pouring in both from Greece and from abroad.
During a press conference on Thursday, Samaras pompously announced that the new broadcasting agency would be called NERIT — the New Hellenic Radio, Internet and Television — which will be ‘modern and transparent and will meet international standards.’ But guess what? The Prime Minister had forgotten to register the nerit.gr domain name. Troktiko, a Greek news blog, immediately did just that. If you go to the NERIT website now, you are immediately connected to the illegal broadcasting of the protesting ERT-occupiers — indicating the extent to which the government has lost control.
Kostas Vaxevanis, who was put on trial for his publication of the Largarde list a day before ERT was shut down, has an analysis of his own. According to Vaxevanis, prime minister Samaras — who in fact was being secretly supported by his coalition partners PASOK and DIMAR — was already planning to close down ERT at the start of this year. In March 2013, he quietly appointed a certain Mr Manalis to the ERT board: a stockbroker, banker, and stooge of the financial sector. That same man has now been appointed by Samaras as the ‘cleaner’ — the man charged with setting up the new broadcaster on the basis of ‘sound finances’.
Apparently, the prime minister did not like the fact that ever since the elections of last year more and more ERT journalists and editors were starting to sound critical notes on the government. Kostas Vaxevanis himself can attest. As an external producer, he had a contract with the ERT for the purchase of 36 reports. Because most of them dealt with scandals surrounding Greek ministers, members of parliament and bankers, only twelve of them were actually broadcast while the board referred the rest to the dustbin. This is why Vaxevanis resigned and started his own magazine, HotDoc, which published the Lagarde list. For Samaras’ taste, the ERT agreed way too much with the views of SYRIZA, the new radical-left/social-democratic party; a rising start at the firmament of Greek politics.
SYRIZA also won a huge election victory last year and is now not only the nemesis of Samaras’ Nea Dimokratia, but also of his waning coalition partners, PASOK and little DIMAR, who keep losing voters to the radical left. According to Vaxevanis, the three coalition partners are playing a game. They pretend that there was no agreement between them. PASOK and DIMAR feign outrage over the fact that Samaras went ‘solo’. That is why we are now faced with a so-called ‘crisis’ inside the coalition and the ‘risk’ of new elections. Last weekend, everyone was busy worrying about that.
On Monday, however, a meeting took place between the ‘naughty’ Samaras and his ‘angry’ coalition partners. But because the country and the ruling parties simply cannot afford new elections, the ranks closed again. And so, even though a court has now ruled that ERT should remain open until the new broadcaster has been created, both Samaras and the junior coalition parties will get their way and the ERT will eventually still be closed down — all in the ‘national interest’ and with the neat support of the seemingly dissenting PASOK and DIMAR. In return, Samaras will have to comply with a few wishes of his coalition partners. That’s it.
So what will the new broadcaster look like? Is there any hope that it will function better than the ERT? Vaxevanis over the phone: “The new broadcaster is already a farce. It will solely consist of those people who slavishly dance to the tunes of the government. In the old ERT it was the board that was thoroughly corrupt, but at least there were a couple of good journalists and program-makers. August is totally infeasible. But what difference does it make? Every other critical sound has now been nipped in the bud by definition. This is not just about our broadcaster; it’s about our democracy — which now finds itself in serious danger.”
Ingeborg Beugel is a well-known Dutch journalist who was formerly based in Athens as a foreign correspondent for various Dutch media outlets. She now lives between Amsterdam and the Greek island of Hydra and regularly appears on Dutch television and in national newspapers and magazines to comment on issues related to the Greek debt crisis.