The suspension of democracy in its birth place: on the dissolution of the Greek public broadcaster, ERT

 ‘In the dark times will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing about the dark times.’

Bertolt Brecht

The first time in EU history a government shuts down a state broadcaster

On Tuesday 11 June 2013, silence was imposed on the Greek state broadcaster ERT after riot police shut down ERT infrastructure. The timing of the ERT shutdown coincided with the deadline set by the troika[1] for the Greek government to sack two thousand civil servants, which was a condition Greece had to meet to unlock further bail-out funds.  In one night, two thousand six hundred employees lost their jobs, and the free voice of the nation, heard by Greeks throughout the country and all over the world, was muted despite the opposition of the ERT employees’ union POSPERT, the President of European Parliament, religious leaders, fifty heads of European public broadcasters and journalists’ unions worldwide. The Greek people’s passionate belief in democracy and freedom, which require independent, pluralistic information, resulted in protests in Athens and across the world.

How does the shutdown of ERT violate democracy?

ERT was shut down by Presidential decree, a decision that not only disregarded the views of two out of three coalition parties, but also ignored European regulations and article 15 of the Hellenic Constitution, which place public service broadcasting in the hands of parliaments not individual presidents. In reaction, the Democratic Left party withdrew from the government, further aggravating the volatility of the Greek political situation.

Whilst article 44 of the Greek Constitution allows the Cabinet to carry out these so-called “acts of legislative content” following a declaration of support from the President, such acts are only constitutionally permissible in urgent and unforeseeable circumstances. It should be noted that these conditions did not apply in this case. The sudden closure of the state broadcaster was also without precedent in that it prevented ERT employees from freely expressing their views about the upcoming reform. No parliamentary debate preceded the hasty dissolution of the public broadcaster, and no effort was made to keep it running through sponsorship agreements.

POSPERT appealed to Greece’s Supreme Court, which ruled that broadcasting on ERT frequencies had to be restored with immediate effect. The government refused to act on this decision. In reaction, ex-employees occupied the broadcaster’s buildings, prolonging its function without being paid for their labour. On 7th November, following a meeting of government representatives with international money-lenders about the release of additional bailout funds, 13 vans of security forces circled the former ERT headquarters. The police raid on the building was followed by clashes, the use of riot-control teargas and the eviction of former employees. Hundreds of protesters assembled outside the building in a demonstration of solidarity and resistance. At the time of writing, ERT remains on the air – symbolically broadcast from the historic Athens Polytechnic where the anti-junta revolt began on 17th November 1974.

Did the decision to shut down ERT benefit the public?

The major argument for the restructuring has been the wasteful administration of public broadcasting in Greece. There is no doubt that there was corruption and wastefulness in ERT, which was attributed to the misuse of the broadcaster by the political parties in power. However, the question is: ‘was the way that the reform was carried out  really in the public interests?’

The clientelistic government (which has been known to hire employees for ERT based on their political connections rather than personal merits) deluded the public that their reform was introduced in the interests of meritocracy.

It is true that an astronomical amount of money was spent on the disproportionally high salaries of a tiny minority of special ERT employees – just 27 employees in fact, 1.01% of the total ERT workforce. However, the Greek people recognised the general insecurity of their collective future mirrored in the faces of the average redundant ERT employee. Needless to say, ERT employees had already suffered vicious wage cuts from 2010 onwards in the context of austerity measures.

It was suggested that the restructuring of public broadcasting would be in the best interests of the average Greek taxpayer and that corruption and cronyism would be eliminated by the dissolution of ERT. This was a misleading argument, as ERT was in fact a net contributor to the public finances, paying nearly €20000 in tax in 2010. The ERT licence fee was €4.25 per household per month, which paid for three TV channels, two satellite channels, twenty-four national and local radio stations and thirty-five broadcasters, as well as orchestra, choir and online services. The ERT license fee was the lowest of any public broadcaster in Europe. (Despite that, it should be noted that some of the Greek population considered it problematic that households were not given the chance to opt out of the licence fee, as in other countries.)  Remarkably, ERT was sharing information with private broadcasters too.

ERT frequencies became occupied by Turkish frequencies on the borders. In addition, the sudden shutdown of the public broadcaster cost a great amount of money in the form of redundancy pay for the employees.

Recently, Parliament passed the bill that will establish NERIT, the new public (but not state) broadcaster. NERIT will function with half the staff and expenditure formerly enjoyed by ERT. On top of this, lawmakers rejected a clause that would have offered considerable protection to NERIT employees.

ERT and civilisation

The UNESCO declaration of Alma Ata in 1992 highlights the importance of public service broadcasting in the promotion of pluralism and civilisation. In contrast to commercial broadcasting, public broadcasting retains neutrality and a spirit of open debate. The offshoring of public broadcasting to the private sector thus leads to a democratic deficit. Against the dominance of business and finance interests in the private media market, the state is supposed to be governed by representatives elected to serve their citizens. For example, ERT’s children’s programmes and documentaries served educational purposes, in sharp contrast to the ruthless advertising and soap operas found on private channels.

ERT’s greatest contribution to the quality of everyday life was the establishment of a pluralistic exchange of information aiming to promote education and art free from commercial imperatives, and to preserve Greek cultural heritage. Without doubt, the seventy five-year history of ERT has constituted an integral part of the modern history of Greek civilization.

The ERT shutdown aggravates the already encumbered cultural sector, which has suffered disproportionate budget cuts. In addition, the closure of a unified national broadcaster and its network of local media outlets further marginalises rural and isolated areas as well as Greek communities abroad, all of which are now deprived of a reliable and high quality source of news from their home country.

Placing the ERT dissolution in the context of the political and financial crisis

The ERT dissolution constitutes one more manifestation of the great global on-going financial crisis, a crisis of over-consumption co-existing with enormous debt, while we also face additional crises like that of climate change. These interrelated crises are analysed by the neoliberal mind and governments in isolation, while the public is distracted by everything from astrology to fashion and celebrity culture. In Greece, this is the sort of content offered by private channels, while ERT always offered more highbrow content aiming to inform citizens about the major problems facing Greece and the world.

It is therefore worth noting that Digea, the consortium of Greece’s largest private broadcasters, has stood by the government not only by the way they chose to present the ERT shutdown but also by providing technical support to the police raid on ERT infrastructure. Such an apparent flagrant failure of solidarity among journalists is explicable by an understanding of the interests at stake here – private broadcasters have benefited from the ERT shutdown, but more broadly it is also important that Digea constitutes a powerful economic actor in its own right, with connections to industrial and shipping magnates. In the politics of Digea’s broadcasting, those connections are never far from the surface and they give the consortium further reason to rejoice at the demise of ERT. In an ideological contest, a view of the media as nothing more than a marketplace for the delivery of goods to passive consumers seems to have won out over the ERT project for an educational media apparatus playing a role in the construction of an informed citizenry.

But why was Digea benefited by the closure of ERT? The government has had discussions behind the scenes with Digea in order to promote their propaganda, and Digea has been using its economic power to get involved in politics. Despite the fact that both European and Greek law do not allow a broadcaster to be simultaneously a network provider (in order to prevent over-accumulation of power by a single source), Digea is both a consortium of the six largest private broadcasters and network provider for them. Importantly, the ERT shutdown coincided with the auction of digital frequencies in Greece, eliminating ERT  from the auction.

Despite the fact that ERT broadcasting used to be partisan, it was still less biased than the private broadcasters. It should be noted that the ERT used to have a more left-leaning approach, which was critical towards a coalition led by a right-wing prime minister. Some employees of the former ERT have been given the chance to re-apply for roles in NERIT, which will allow for the creation of a more easily-controlled public broadcaster.

Resistance continues – call for solidarity

It is clear that independent public broadcasting, free from the influences of high finance, should be an integral part of society. Greek people are grateful that in their fight they are not alone. Considerable protests have been organised in the UK and all over the globe. This is a matter of democracy and dignity. Violation of those lofty ideals is not limited to the Greek case, and it has been accompanied by resistance everywhere from Turkey and Spain to Brazil. Europe should help Greece. We absolutely believe that solidarity campaigns and support in other countries will help us restore free speech. Our fight should give a message of hope and inspiration to partners in struggle all over the world.

By Eleni Katsouni

Eleni Katsouni is a postgraduate student in Neuroscience at Oxford University and former President of the Oxford University Green Society.

 

[1] The troika is  the entity consisting of the European commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

 

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One comment

  1. Pyrrhus Mercouris

    There is an international trade union – Uni-Mei [http://www.iaea-globalunion.org/a-propos/uni-mei] which is launching a campaign to assist its members. ERT employees are members of UNI-MEI. I advise anyone wishing to do a bit more to check the ERT website. PLUS the international Federation of Journalists [IFI] has also started a campaign.

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