By Michael Nevradakis
Reporting from Athens
Tuesday, June 11 began as any other day in crisis and austerity-striken Greece. Over 1.5 million people woke up to another day of unemployment, millions more woke up to another day of lowered salaries and pensions and slashed public services, as part of the crippling austerity measures that Greece's three-party coalition government is implementing, at the demand of the International Monetary Fund, the European Union, and the European Central Bank, collectively referred to as the "troika." However, it is doubtful that anyone, except the members of the government, woke up expecting that by the end of the day, ERT, Greece's historic national public broadcaster, would be off the air.
The Announcement and Shutdown
On Tuesday afternoon, following rumors that had begun to swirl during the day, Greek government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou publicly announced the immediate shutdown and dissolution of ERT. In his speech, Kedikoglou levied a series of accusations against ERT in order to justify the government's decision. Kedikoglou described ERT as a bloated haven of corruption, waste, and partisanship, one that lacked transparency and which was a burden on Greek households, through the license fee paid by Greek households via their electricity bills. He further justified the decision based on ERT's low ratings compared to its commercial counterparts, adding that ERT maintained an "excessive" number of regional radio stations with little original programming. Notably, it was Kedikoglou who, in several instances, had categorically denied that ERT was about to be shuttered, including in interviews as recently as May 15th and 19th, and on his website (which has apparently since been hacked and is now offline). The shutdown of ERT immediately called into question various clauses in the Greek constitution, as well as the Treaty of Amsterdam which oversees public service broadcasting in Europe.
In place of ERT, Kedikolou announced the impending launch of a new national broadcaster, NERIT, which would operate with a leaner staff and budget, and which he claimed would be more independent from the government and staffed via a transparent hiring process. Rumors that have circulated since this announcement are describing a new national broadcaster with fewer radio and television stations and with a staff of 800, instead of the 2,656 people who were employed at ERT.
Just hours after Kedikoglou's announcement, the Greek government, in a stunning tour de force, shut down ERT's broadcast signal nationwide, apparently severing the fiber optic lines which fed the signal to most transmitters throughout the country. At around 11 pm on Tuesday, screens around the country went black, as did ERT's national radio frequencies. Phone and internet lines at ERT facilities were cut by German-owned OTE (Greece's telecommunications giant), at the request of the government. Armed police forces raided mountaintop transmission facilities in Athens and Thessaloniki, breaking down doors and windows, evicting personnel, and changing locks. These actions had a historical precedent: the Greek government's sudden shutdown of 66 private radio stations in Athens in March 2001, when the decision was announced and enforced within hours and when riot police forced transmitters off the air. Then, as now, there was a public interest rationale, with the government claiming in 2001 that the operation of more than 20 private radio stations would cause dangerous interference to the new Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport in Athens, which was about to begin operating (a claim which has since been thoroughly debunked). The stations that remained on the air almost invariably belonged to major media and business interests.
An Unprecedented Response
The response to ERT's sudden closure was unprecedented: within hours, a citizen's movement in support of ERT sprang up, heavily fueled by social media. On Twitter, #ERT and #occupyert became two of the top trending hashtags worldwide. As ERT's employees took over control of the public broadcaster's main headquarters and other ERT facilities throughout the country, ERT began to transmit a live protest broadcast via the internet. Dozens upon dozens of websites sprung up as well, retransmitting ERT's internet stream.
In the following days, the protest movement swelled and it gained support from major actors both within and outside of Greece. Tens of thousands of citizens began to congregate outside ERT's main headquarters in Athens, and thousands more at ERT's facilities in other cities in Greece. The European Broadcasting Union (EBU), of which ERT was a founding member, lent ERT its support, providing ERT with a satellite uplink which restored its broadcast to Europe via Eutelsat, while adding its own internet rebroadcast as well. In Thessaloniki, ERT subsidiary ERT3 set up its own non-stop protest broadcast, also carried via satellite and the internet with the EBU's support. Several radio and television stations throughout the country began to rebroadcast ERT's protest broadcast as well, in a show of solidarity with their now-fired colleagues at the public broadcaster.
Threats of Censorship
The Greek government's reaction to these developments can only be described as a hardening of their original stance. Giannis Stournaras, the unelected Greek finance minister whose ministry overtook control of ERT to oversee its dissolution, sent a written warning to radio and television stations, informing them that they would face consequences if they rebroadcast ERT's protest broadcast. Sto Kokkino 105.5 FM, a radio station in Athens owned by the left-wing Syriza political party, was threatened with closure after it rebroadcast portions of ERT's broadcast. More egregiously, 902 TV, a television station owned by the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) had its signal repeatedly taken off the air by DIGEA, a private company which operates the network of digital over-the-air transmitters used by Greece's national private television networks. In an internal DIGEA document that was leaked to the public, the company's call center employees were instructed what to tell viewers that called in to complain about 902 TV's signal being taken off the air. Similarly to 902 TV, Zoom TV, a smaller television station broadcasting in the Athens region, was also censored by DIGEA when it briefly turned to a rebroadcast of ERT.
The EBU was not immune to the government's pressure and intimidation either. On Saturday, one of ERT's satellite feeds which was being provided by EBU was taken off of the Hotbird satellite by RRsat, an Israeli company which provided the uplink of the signal to the satellite. This occurred via diplomatic means, through the official request of the Greek government via its ambassador in Israel. While ERT's and ERT3's satellite broadcast continues on the EBU's own frequencies on Eutelsat, the loss of the Hotbird feed meant that most ERT transmitters throughout Greece, which had been brought back on the air by ERT's engineers in the interim, went black again, as they had been set up to retransmit the feed from Hotbird. As of Sunday evening, only a handful of broadcast transmitters in Greece, in the cities of Thessaloniki, Patra, and Kastoria, were reported to still be operating. In the meantime, many of ERT's regional radio stations continued broadcasting as well with the help of employees which continued to occupy the public broadcaster's facilities throughout Greece. A bilingual crowdsourced document, anonymously created on Google Docs in the midst of this chaotic situation, attempted to chart all of the active radio, television, and satellite transmitters that were in operation, in addition to listing the ever-increasing number of websites retransmitting ERT's radio and television broadcasts.
In the preceding days, ERT engineers in Athens had also attempted to restore the broadcast signal. Within hours of the original shutdown, ERT's signal reappeared via an analogue broadcast in the VHF band, only to go down again within hours. After that, a digital broadcast was set up, first on 52 UHF, later 48 UHF, 40 UHF, and 56 UHF. In each instance, the signal that was being broadcast faced heavy interference, reportedly by DIGEA. This interference made the digital signal impossible to receive in many parts of Athens. Riot police took transmitters off the air in Athens, Thessaloniki, and reportedly in the cities of Kalamata and Tripoli as well, and secured several secondary ERT facilities in Athens, where in the early hours of Wednesday morning, a lone ERT security guard continued to staff one such building, on Mourouzi Street, surrounded by over 20 riot police and three police vans, until the end of his shift at 6 am. So much for the myth of the "lazy" Greek worker!
EBU Assistance and Support
In addition to technical assistance provided by the EBU, ERT and its protesting workforce also received other forms of EBU support as well, in addition to public shows of support from other European public broadcasters, some of whom also rebroadcast portions of ERT's programming in a show of support, and which have made the shutdown of ERT one of their top stories in the past few days. Jean-Paul Philippot, the president of the EBU, visited ERT's headquarters in Athens, and in a press conference which aired live on ERT, he vociferously spoke out against ERT's closure, which he described as brutal and "democracy being silenced." In addition, Philippot send a letter to Samaras, urging him to revoke his decision. Additionally, the EBU organized an online petition calling for ERT to be reopened.
"The idea of cutting the signal and sending screens black is the very worst kind of censorship," said Philippot. "It is a violent assault on democratic debate which is not acceptable."
With the EBU's assistance and with the continued efforts of ERT's staff to keep ERT on the air, continuing to staff the public broadcaster's headquarters and facilities on a 24/7 basis, ERT has continued its protest broadcasts without interruption since Tuesday. Thousands of people remain outside ERT's main headquarters on a continuous basis, and each evening, they have been treated to live music performed by a series of musicians who have come out in a show of support for ERT, as well as by ERT's own in-house orchestras, which are the only national orchestras which exist in Greece and which were also officially dissolved with the shutdown of ERT.
Putting the "Public" Back in Public Broadcasting
Equally as significant have been ERT's broadcasts since Tuesday, which have featured a continuous stream of guests from various citizen's and social movements in the country, who have discussed not just the shutdown of ERT, but issues such as the impending privatization of Greece's water utilities, police brutality against citizens and immigrants, the environmentally and financially disastrous gold mining activities taking place in Skouries, in northern Greece, the closure of hospitals and schools throughout the country, and other issues that are directly related to the harsh austerity measures being imposed in Greece, but which are rarely, if ever, reported upon by the country's private media outlets, which are largely controlled by major financial and business interests. For many Greeks, the past several days have been the first time that ERT, or any broadcaster in Greece, for that matter, has been truly "free," speaking out on a range of topics and concerns which impact ordinary citizens. It is certainly a twist of irony that this sort of free and unfettered broadcasting has occurred after the shutdown and effective outlawing of ERT.
Perhaps the clearest example of the newfound freedom seen on ERT was a panel discussion which aired on Sunday, featuring several citizen journalists, prominent Greek twitter personalities, and representatives from online mediums such as radiobubble. This broadcast was without precedent: never before had Greek television, private or public, featured a panel comprised entirely of citizen journalists and representatives of "alternative" mediums. Equally as notable was the incredibly civilized tone of the conversation—in stark contrast to the shouting, insults, and constant interruptions that are commonplace on the newscasts and talk programs of private television in Greece.
Criticism and Reality
ERT, prior to the shutdown, was not without its (many) critics. It was often viewed as toeing the government line politically while distancing itself from a number of matters important to many citizens. ERT was seen as lacking editorial and operational independence, subject to government interference in everything from news reporting to hiring. These criticisms were not without merit—indeed, they were sometimes quite valid. However, it is important to state that the source of these problems invariably was the interference of successive governments and the major political parties in ERT's operations. When certain staffers were hired based on their political affiliations or connections, when newscasts and talk programs omitted certain stories or reported stories tilted towards the government's point of view, when obnoxious salaries were given to certain high-level executives, all of this was the result of the government's interference in the operations of ERT. These same political parties that created this situation are now the same parties that are professing to "reform" ERT, just as one year ago today, on the eve of the Greek parliamentary elections, they promised to "renegotiate" the loan agreements and austerity measures imposed by the troika, only to impose even more stifling austerity measures once elected and in power.
Indeed, it could be said that ERT, in comparison with the major private television stations, newspapers, and radio stations in Greece, was relatively more free and objective in its journalistic work. And in the past year, such instances of objectivity or even open criticism of government actions were often dealt with harshly. In October, the co-hosts of ERT's morning television news show, Kostas Arvanitis and Marilena Katsimi, were fired after making critical remarks on the air against the minister of public order, Nikos Dendias, following allegations published in The Guardian that protesters who were arrested and detailed by the Hellenic Police had been beaten and tortured. In November, it was announced that an internal workgroup was formed at ERT that would oversee all external television productions and conduct prior review of programming for "objectivity," among other factors. This workgroup was formed soon after Aimilios Liatsos was installed as ERT's news director. Prior to taking this post, Liatsos was a news reader on Star Channel, reporting the latest celebrity gossip on what passed for the station's newscast.
Indeed, many of the government's claims about ERT are, in large part, myths. One such myth were the large salaries and perks enjoyed by ERT employees. This belief was reinforced by various lists of salaries which began circulating on the Internet after ERT's shutdown, showing huge salaries for dozens upon dozens of ERT personalities and staffers. What was not often mentioned is that these lists were outdated and old, with salaries from the pre-austerity days in Greece, and in many cases, listing salaries of individuals who have long since departed from ERT. In any case, such examples of extravagance were the exception, not the norm. It's been reported that 36 ERT executives, appointed by the government, had salaries totaling the combined salaries of the remaining 2,600+ employees at ERT. The average salaries of ERT employees, in fact, reportedly range from 1,200 to 1,400 Euros per month, far lower than the accusations that most staffers were making 2,500 or 3,000 Euros per month. As recently as a few months ago, the Samaras government, which now claims to be "cleaning up" ERT, installed several high-salaried employees within the public broadcaster. Kedikoglou himself is a former ERT journalist, who allegedly was given a position in ERT in 1990 with the help of his father, then a member of parliament.
More examples of mythology exist. One of the rationales given by Kedikoglou and one of the arguments most often heard by supporters of ERT's shutdown was that ERT was costing Greek households a fortune, via the mandatory license fee levied on electricity bills. What isn't mentioned is that this license fee—4.20 Euro per month—is one of the lowest in Europe, and that a quarter of the license fee did not even go to ERT, but to a "green fund" set up by the Greek state, which in part funds private companies in the energy sector. What also is not mentioned when this argument is put forth is that the same government that is professing to be saving Greek households money by eliminating ERT and the license fee, is maintaining the troika-imposed value-added tax of 23% on most goods and services, even some basic necessities, the so-called "haratsi" (the "temporary" mandatory property tax imposed on homeowners and included on electric bills), and has slashed salaries and wages.
Even the "wastefulness" of ERT is a myth. According to ERT's own financial figures, in 2011 ERT had pre-tax profits of 56.9 million Euros, while in 2012, that figure was 36 million Euros. It pays 84 million Euros in tax, insurance, and social security contributions to the Greek state. This in contrast to the private media outlets, none of which are profitable, and most of which are kept afloat by the business activities of their owners—major business, banking, and shipping moguls—as well as through bank loans (from banks that have been recapitalized with taxpayer money), income from government advertising, and money saved from not paying legally required fees for the usage of the publicly-owned airwaves. Indeed, it can be said that the media outlets which are a drain on the Greek taxpayer are those that are privately owned, not ERT.
In his speech announcing the shutdown of ERT, Kedikoglou referred to ERT's poor ratings: an 11-12% national television audience share, when major private networks such as Mega Channel and Antenna (ANT1) are typically each in the 18-20% range. Not mentioned by Kedikoglou, however, was that the mission of a public broadcaster is not to attract the largest possible audience for advertisers. Its mission is to serve the public, to promote culture, to give a voice to the voiceless in society. Documentaries about Greek culture, independent films, travel programs, programs targeting the large Greek diaspora, and classical music may not be commercially viable programming, but it is programming that is invaluable and which will not be provided by commercial broadcasters.
The Real Reasons Behind ERT's Shutdown
The real reasons why the government suddenly decided to shutter ERT and why it has been so adamant about this decision likely has nothing to do with bloating, patronage, or transparency. Despite talk about the "independence" the new public broadcasting entity will enjoy, it is likely that the "new" ERT will be comprised of staff and journalists hand-picked by the government, even under the guise of a "fair" application process. As seen with the earlier example where Arvanitis and Katsimi were fired, the government was unhappy with certain voices in ERT that were not in lock-step with the government. Starting over again with a new hiring process could ensure that the most loyal journalists and staffers cut to the front of the line.
Additionally, the government is under tremendous pressure from the troika—including the same IMF which recently admitted grave "mistakes" in its austerity program for Greece—to immediately slash at least 2,000 jobs in the public sector, as one of the terms of receiving the next tranche of funds from the troika. Silencing ERT allows the government to meet that benchmark in one fell swoop. Indeed, the shutdown, or at the very least the downsizing and "reform" of ERT, is explicitly stated in one of the loan agreements ("memorandums") signed by the Greek government with the troika, dating back to 2011. And, in keeping in line with other demands being made by the troika, it is likely that the extensive property and assets of ERT would be in line to be sold to private investors. Interestingly enough, there was a relatively muted response from the European Union, with Olli Rehn, the EU's economic and monetary affairs commissioner, stating that there had been no EU pressure to shut down ERT, while the president of the EU parliament, condemned the closure of ERT in public remarks and in a letter sent to Greek prime minister Antonis Samaras. It was rumored, however, that behind the scenes, EU officials were pleased with the Greek government's rapid shutdown of ERT.
Moreover, the elimination of ERT, even with the launch of a new, "leaner" public broadcaster, inevitably means that the private television and radio stations will face less competition. It also means that the audience will have fewer alternatives to the vehemently pro-government, pro-austerity national private television networks. This was evident when the rights to broadcast the remainder of the Greek basketball league finals, which had been paid for by ERT, were transferred for the paltry sum of 70,000 Euros to private national television station Skai.
Finally, the "shock and awe" created by the sudden shutdown of ERT serves as a tremendous distraction from the latest embarrassing failures of the government, including the recent failure to sell Greece's natural gas utility, DEPA, to Gazprom, and the potential collapse of the sale of the national lottery, OPAP, to Greek and foreign investors. These failures came just a few days after Samaras proclaimed that Greece had turned the corner and become a "success story." A successful attempt to shut down ERT, however, would provide a precedent and also the political momentum that would allow the Greek government to swiftly proceed forward with the planned privatizations of vital Greek utilities, including the water and electric utilities, airports, harbors, and other valuable assets.
Democracy Called Into Question
Indeed, the "shock and awe" resulting from the sudden shutdown of ERT is what seems to have disturbed a large segment of the Greek populace, more than the closure of ERT itself. The announcement of the shutdown took the country by surprise, particularly as no debate took place publicly or in parliament, and certainly not with ERT itself. Instead, an urgent legislative order, signed by various government ministers and with zero parliamentary debate, was announced, the 19th such order passed by the current government. According to the Greek constitution, such orders can only be issued in times of national urgency, and must represent a majority of the parliament. The specific order which shut down ERT was signed only by members of New Democracy, which alone does not have enough seats in parliament to constitute a majority. The swiftness and the undemocratic means with which the decision was made and enforced has infuriated and worried many Greeks, who are concerned about what other moves the government will make following this. Also concerning was the seemingly haphazard way in which the shutdown took place, without the "new" public broadcaster ready to launch. Kedikoglou, in his speech, stated that the new broadcaster, NERIT, would begin operating within 2-3 months. In a subsequent interview, when asked why the closure of ERT wasn't just announced in advance, to allow for a smooth transition to the new broadcasting entity, Kedikoglou arrogantly retorted that if the government had done so, ERT's employees would have simply gone on strike for three months and ERT wouldn't have operated anyway.
The haste with which the decision was seemingly made and implemented was also evident by the fact that the Greek government forgot to register the "nerit.gr" domain name. Soon after the announcement of the impending formation of NERIT, nerit.gr was registered by a third party, and in a major embarrassment for the government, began to rebroadcast ERT's protest broadcast. Within a couple of days though, Greece's top-level domain registrar, in violation of the law and the first-come, first-serve principle of the domain name registration on the Internet, allegedly shut down nerit.gr.
Notably, while most opposition political parties in Greece have expressed their opposition to the shutdown of ERT, one party that has vociferously supported the government's decision is the far-right Golden Dawn party, which in effect has become New Democracy's strongest ally within the parliament on this issue, especially as members of PASOK and DIMAR have, publicly at least, expressed reservations with the total shutdown of ERT.
ERT's disappearance also poses potential national security concerns, not to mention difficulties for the substantial Greek diaspora abroad. In many rural parts of Greece, where there is no commercial interest for private stations to retransmit their signal, ERT's television and radio stations were, quite often, the only Greek voice on the airwaves. This problem is particularly pronounced in Greece's border regions, and particularly in the Aegean islands off of the Turkish coast, where dozens of Turkish radio and television broadcasters, transmitting at very high powers, absolutely dominate the airwaves. The disappearance of ERT means that certain regions can now only receive Turkish stations, typically with a crystal-clear signal. In the meantime, the Greek diaspora has been cut off, as ERT World's (Greece's international satellite television network) has had all of its worldwide satellite feeds cut and continues to broadcast via satellite only in Europe with the help of the EBU. Similarly, Greece's international radio service, The Voice of Greece, has also been eliminated, cutting yet another vital and historic lifeline to the overseas Greek community.
The unique services provided by ERT were hardly limited to its broadcasts overseas or to rural sections of the country. ERT broadcast documentaries and films which would never be seen on commercial broadcasters, and provided some limited funding to Greece's small film industry. Cultural and sporting events of limited commercial appeal were also broadcast, and ERT served as a sponsor for a number of concerts, theatrical performances, museum exhibits, and other cultural events throughout the country. ERT also operated the only high-definition broadcast television channel in Greece, and an extensive web TV service, where its broadcasts could be viewed live and on-demand. On the radio side, ERT operated the country's only radio station dedicated to classical music and the arts, the only radio station which played global and world music, the country's first-ever sports radio station, aired the country's longest-running radio program, hosted by Giannis Petridis for the past 38 years. It also operated the country's only multilingual radio station, as well as 19 regional radio stations which provided local coverage to far-flung parts of the country. And going beyond broadcasting, ERT was home to two national orchestras (performing classical and modern music) and a choir. As Greece does not have a national philharmonic, ERT's philarmonic was the closest replacement. In 2012, they collectively performed 75 concerts and 46 educational programs for children, including 20 free concerts, while 25 concerts had been performed so far this year. Finally, ERT also maintained Greece's only freely-accessible audiovisual archive, a treasure trove of old programming, newscasts, films, documentaries, sporting events, and other radio and television productions from 1938 until today. All of this content was digitized and fully available online, but ever since the official government shutdown of ERT on Tuesday, the archive's website has been inaccessible.
For these reasons, it should come as no surprise that a variety of different opinion polls taken after the shutdown of ERT found that anywhere between 64 and 70 percent of respondents were opposed to the shutdown of ERT. Even if there were many in Greece who did not regularly watch or listen to much of ERT's programming, ERT was considered a national institution, and certainly an institution that did not deserve to be crumpled up like a piece of rubbish and thrown into the trash bin of history by the unpopular pro-austerity Greek government. That same government is reportedly now declining in the polls, while rumors of early elections have been swirling in Greece for most of the past week.
Greece's Private Media and Collusion with the State
Ironically, ERT, over the past week, has been forced into "pirate" status, continuing its broadcasts "illegally" even though it was, up until its closure, the only legally licensed broadcasting entity in Greece. None of the private radio or television stations are operating with valid licenses, but instead, they operate under the umbrella of a convoluted, irrational set of legal loopholes, "temporary" licenses, certificates of "legality," expired licenses, or, at times, no license or other legal documentation of any kind. This situation, which has existed ever since broadcasting was deregulated in the late 1980s, allows the government of the day to exert pressure on broadcasters to not stray too far out of line, under the threat of having their broadcast privileges revoked. This fluid situation, however, also works, in many ways, to the advantage of the major media moguls, who have transformed the radio and television landscape into a Darwinian marketplace where only the strong (and well-connected) survive. The private stations may, for the most part, not be profitable, but that is not the purpose of their existence. Instead, they serve as a means for the business elite of the country to promote their other ventures, including construction companies which receive major government contracts for public works projects. They also serve as a mouthpiece for their owners, to promote their political agenda and to pressure the government and the political parties.
A clear example of the collusion between government and the major media moguls, with direct implications for ERT, can be seen in the ongoing tender issued by the government to license the network providers for terrestrial digital television broadcasts in Greece. According to Nikos Mihalitsis, former technical director of ERT, the draft law that has been issued for public debate is an example of "tailored legislation": the requirements set forth in the law are so specific that only one company, DIGEA, meets the criteria. One such requirement is that any company that is to be licensed has to have previous experience with the marketing and advertising of digital television. Only DIGEA fits those criteria in Greece. This, in effect, closes out every other entity, including ERT as well as the foreign investors that the government claims to wish to attract. Moreover, there is no clause in the draft legislation that prevents a conflict of interest between the network (transmission) provider and the content (programming) provider. As a result, DIGEA, which is a consortium of Greece's six largest private television stations, is in the clear. With the shutdown of ERT, not only is there a danger that DIGEA will obtain all of the frequencies slated for the digital broadcasts of national private television stations, but it may also be granted the right to operate the nationwide digital frequencies that would otherwise have been earmarked for ERT.
One Year of Broken Promises
It was one year ago today that the current three-party coalition government was elected into office. The party which emerged victorious, but badly battered, from the elections, was the supposedly "pro-European" New Democracy party, which had campaigned on a series of promises that it would renegotiate the "memorandum" the Greek state had signed with the troika, and roll back the harshest of austerity measures. Much of the international media, including many media outlets which have since hypocritically expressed "concern" over the rising authoritarianism of the government, could barely conceal their glee that the "responsible" and "pro-European" New Democracy party had won. Nevertheless, New Democracy did not secure enough seats in parliament to form a majority, and was obliged to form a coalition with two other parties, the supposedly "socialist" PASOK and DIMAR (the "Democratic Left"). Combined, the three parties did not secure 50% of the national vote (48.19% to be exact), in an election with a record-low turnout in Greece.
Not only did New Democracy's pre-election promises not materialize, but the coalition government has enacted successively harsher measures over the past year, has governed without even a modicum of transparency or national dialogue, and has grown increasingly hostile and authoritarian in nature. This hostility has extended to any media outlets that have not parroted the government line, as well as independent bloggers, activists, and photojournalists. There have been numerous instances of journalists who have been beaten and assaulted by police and security forces at protests and rallies, while the arrest, trial, and ongoing retrial of investigative journalist Kostas Vaxevanis for violating "privacy laws" as a result of his publication of the so-called Lagarde list of alleged Greek tax evaders with Swiss bank accounts, has made global headlines. Conversely, the government has barely even attempted to conceal its collusion with the major business and media interests in Greece. Following the closure of ERT, the main journalists' unions of Greece called a rolling strike in support of their colleagues at ERT. Several newspapers and media outlets broke the strike, however, and images published in the "Independent Opinion," a special strike newspaper published independently by journalists in solidarity with ERT (the first such paper published in Greece in 37 years), showed photographs of Greek riot police escorting the delivery trucks of the strike-breaking newspapers, while there were reports that riot police were also stationed outside the main offices of DIGEA, to dissuade protesters who were considering protesting that company's censorship of 902 TV's rebroadcasts of ERT.
The Day After: A Fluid Situation
What ultimately will happen remains to be seen. Crowds continue to remain outside ERT's headquarters in Athens and outside ERT facilities throughout Greece, while the leaders of the three coalition parties are slated to meet this evening at 7:30 pm to discuss the situation. At 8 pm, Alexis Tsipras, the leader of the main opposition party Syriza, is expected to give a speech in Syntagma Square in Athens, outside of the parliament, in what may turn out to be a fiery atmosphere. A decision on the appeal filed by the ERT's employee union to the Council of State, Greece's high court, seeking invalidation of the government's legislative order, is expected to be issued on Tuesday. Early on Monday morning, two television frequencies previously used by ERT began operating digitally in Athens, showing color test bars and displaying the name "NERIT." Initially, DIGEA appeared as the network provider, but the information being transmitted now displays "NERIT" as well.
In the meantime, both the TV and FM bands in Athens and many other parts of Greece are increasingly resembling hertzian ghost towns. On the Athenian radio dial, close to 20 frequencies that were previously occupied by ERT and by private stations are broadcasting dead air or are completely off the air, the latter being victims of the bankruptcy of their parent companies. ERT continues its protest broadcasts online and via satellite and a smattering of transmitters in Greece that have been reactivated, with no certainty as to what the next day, or even the next hour, will hold. In plans announced for the new NERIT, there is no word if ERT's orchestras or choir will be salvaged, if an international radio or television service will be launched, if the ERT archive will ever be publicly available agian, if regional radio stations that also provided coverage to remote, rural regions will broadcast again.
For some, ERT may have been an expensive, bloated operation, and even most employees within ERT would agree that at least some restructuring was necessary. But the opportunity cost of losing a national institution such as ERT is tremendous, even if it is replaced by a "lite" version of itself. The blow that it will deal to Greece's cultural landscape is impossible to estimate, as is the impact on both the rural regions and the overseas Greek communities that relied on ERT to be their lifeline to the homeland. The danger that Greece faces by operating for even just a few days without a national public broadcaster is equally huge, as was evident earlier on Saturday, when two large earthquakes struck south of Crete. While the impact on land ended up being negligible, one wonders how the authorities would have been able to mobilize and get the word out to the entire country in the event of a crisis.
Mostly, though, the blow that the shutdown of ERT dealt, without warning, to 2,656 people and their families is inestimable. At a time when the unemployment rate in Greece is nearing 28%, many of these individuals were the lone breadwinners for their families. In the end, perhaps the most enduring image of this latest sorry episode in modern Greek history and politics, other than the black screens which suddenly appeared on television sets nationwide, was the camera shot of the tear-filled face of a member of ERT's National Symphony Orchestra, officially out of a job and playing on at a protest concert, through the tears. More so than the images of protests and demonstrations, this tear-filled face may just become the emblematic image of austerity-stricken Greece, the "collateral damage" of an out-of-control, authoritarian government that is only concerned with money and maintaining its grip on power, while its policies impoverish the country, economically, intellectually, and culturally.
UPDATE: At around 9:30 pm this evening, the Greek Council of State (Greece's highest court) ruled partially in favor of the appeal lodged by ERT's employee union, POSPERT, issuing a temporary injunction overturning the ministerial order which shut down ERT. According to the decision, ERT and all of its radio and television frequencies and websites, are to be restored to full operation (as they were prior to June 11th) immediately. ERT is to remain in operation until a new public broadcaster is officially formed. The Greek government is barred from firing ERT's employees until at least September, when the Council of State will issue its full and final decision on the issue.
UPDATE 2: Conflicting reports are emerging regarding the specifics of the decision of the Council of State tonight. New Democracy considers the court's decision as one that is in its favor, as it foresees the shutdown of ERT. PASOK and DIMAR considers the decision of the court to be a justification of their stance that the national public broadcaster should be "reformed" but should not have been allowed to go dark.
There are questions as to the status of ERT's employees, as reportedly, an administrator will be appointed to oversee the staffing of the interim ERT, while other reports claim that the court decision does not allow ERT employees to be fired until October. Furthermore, the court decision only explicitly states that ERT's radio, television, and online services are to reopen. This apparently excludes ERT's two orchestras, its choir, and its weekly "Radiotileorasi" magazine. What, in reality, this will mean for those entities remains to be seen.
In the meantime, tonight's meeting of the three coalition leaders reportedly ended without any firm agreements. The three party leaders will meet again on Wednesday to continue their talks.
UPDATE 3:The Greek Constitutional Court decided the following on ERT:
1. It accepts the closure of the old company.
2. It orders the re-opening of ERT under a temporary regime of "receivership" by the Ministry of Finance.
3. It allows the Ministry of Finance during the time of temporary receivership (i.e., now) to "keep or fire any or all employees" of ERT.
4. It mentions that it expects that the new (post temporary receivership) ERT will be a "state public interest company" unlike the old ERT.