When the self-evident is endangered…

Kostas Argyros, journalist & producer, NET TV

Is there a life without public service broadcasting? Greece’s government appears to think so. Its decision to shut down ERT (Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation) within a matter of hours is a symbol of brutal, neo-liberal politics… politics which are aimed at defaming and restricting everything meant to be a public service. This deeply shocked Greek society. ERT, despite all of its problems and negative issues, was a national symbol and a Greek voice abroad. ERT mirrored Greek society, a “micrography” of the country, one could say. The state of ERT reflected the state of the Greek nation and its political evolution.

For people in border regions, or for Greeks living abroad, ERT was often the only link to Athens. The public service media (TV-radio-Internet) was often the only platform of

expression for young artists, directors, musicians, dancers and members of various ethnic minorities. ERT gave a voice to people and groups otherwise ignored by bigger media outlets.

Despite its independence from the government, ERT provided fairer and more comprehensive coverage than privately-owned media. ERT was more pluralistic and varied than private media. Much of the private media broadcasts without state licenses, owes the state millions of euros, and still manages to have financial problems. It was not by chance that Prime Minister Samaras cited as a reason to shut down ERT “a lack of providing proper coverage” of his foreign policy activities. Last year, during the period of the “national” all-party government, ERT’s credibility with viewers and listeners surged, resulting in extremely high viewer ratings on election night 2012. ERT also had much greater credibility with viewers who “knew where it was coming from”, something which could not always be said of private broadcasters. In the event of major foreign events, Greeks always tuned into ERT first because ERT had a broad network of foreign correspondents. ERT also provided other outlets with material regarding the government and president, especially when the stories had a foreign angle such as state visits, etc.

This was all ignored by the Greek government on 11 June 2013. One month later there is still no public service broadcaster, aside from a caricature of a TV station which lacks a license and personnel, and which since July 10th has broadcast mainly old documentaries or Greek comedies from the 1960s. As for radio and the Internet, the government has done nothing to end the silence.

Each day which passes proves there is no plan for the future of public broadcasting in Greece. Suspicions intensify that the neoliberal orthodoxy wants to do away with all public service broadcasting. It is not by chance that, despite government pronouncements to the contrary, the government still has no concrete plans for a new public service broadcaster. This applies to both the administrative and journalistic levels. Until now there has only been a very vague and non-transparent government proposal which experts regard as a roadmap for cementing ministers’ control over a new state broadcaster and will erect insurmountable hurdles for journalistic freedom. Samaras and the new “state secretary for television” must also accept responsibility for high costs of shutting down ERT. Estimates put the process of shutting down ERT and founding a new public broadcaster at between 150 and 300 million euros.

The Greek government is trying to create a precedent in Europe. Many fear that Greece will once again be the test case for a brutal experiment. The aim is to test the limits of public patience. This has already been seen in the case of austerity policies, now in their fourth year in Greece. The “success” of these policies have only increased the country’s debt and pushed society further into poverty and desperation. Public broadcasters in other southern European nations such as Spain and Portugal rightly fear that they could be next. This helps explain the outrage from abroad over this shocking decision by the Greek government. This authoritarian move by the Samaras government has achieved the exact opposite of what it was intended to. The reaction of the ERT staff, which has kept the broadcaster alive for the past month with the unexpected acceptance and support

of the Greek public, proves that a truly public, open and independent media is possible and viable. Yes, it is urgently needed and wanted by Greeks now more than ever. The thousands who came to ERT headquarters---including labour union representatives, minorities, artist collectives, internet journalists--- and who found in ERT an open broadcaster, all of these people and groups know that nothing will be the same. Even if the government stands its ground and refuses to budge and dreams about a facility which caters only to its whims and desires, society will remain a few steps ahead in resisting and will never accept a state broadcaster which has been neutralized.

The closure of ERT is a hard and tough example of appreciating the importance of what we once regarded as self-evident. It has raised awareness of how society can protect and improve independent media. •

This article was published in "TEXTE 9 - Why Greece matters" (2013)