A blow to democracy

Anthony A. Mills, Director of Communications of the International Press Institute

There may well have been waste at Greece’s public broadcaster, which was closed without warning about a month ago, and without the agreement of all government coalition parties. But the shutdown, ostensibly part of the austerity program that Greece must fulfil as part of its financial bailout terms (it must raise 1.8 billion Euros through privatisation and sack 4,000 civil servants by the end of the year), is a huge blow to Greek democracy.

This helps explain why the closure generated such concern internationally, in particular on the part of press freedom groups such as the International Press Institute (IPI) and its affiliate, the South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO).

Now, at this time of crisis, Greek citizens both at home and abroad, are in greater need than ever of the services of ERT, with its three TV channels and numerous local radio stations. As imperfect as it may have been, as bloated as its finances may have been, and as overloaded a vessel of nepotism as it may have been, it still provided a crucial democratic function: transmitting relatively reliable information to citizens seeking to hold their democratically elected representatives accountable, at a time of enormous challenges for Greece. Let there be no mistake: The stakes are high – Greece recently became the first developed country to be downgraded to the status of emerging market by the index provider MSCI.

The government said that the broadcaster suffered from a “unique lack of transparency and incredible waste”. While it is fair to suggest that with each new Greek government (this has been going on for decades fuelled by the two then-dominant parties New Democracy and Pasok) managers and senior journalists were indeed appointed to further political agendas, the complete shutdown of the public broadcaster is hardly a proportionate response, whatever the semantic packaging. For decades, the two parties ran the country like a private fiefdom; their cronies and clients contributed significantly to ERT‘s over-bloated workforce. But this problem, to a greater or lesser extent exists in other EU state public broadcasters. In other EU countries, too, public broadcaster governing boards are sliced up according to political influence, the contracts of editors-in-chief are not prolonged because they have made enemies of the ruling party, journalists are fired when they criticise the powers-that-be and, in one instance at least, the public broadcaster, because of new media legislation and regulations, more closely resembles a state broadcaster than a public one. All of these troubling facts notwithstanding, no one is seriously suggesting that there is no longer a role for public broadcasters to play in democracies. On the contrary, their role must be strengthened. Where there are weaknesses and shortcomings efforts must be made to rectify them.

Many observers see in the development with Greece’s public broadcaster part of a more general erosion of Greek democracy. Government decrees are increasingly used. The closure of the public broadcaster was brought about through a presidential decree.

There is a widespread sense that freedom of expression is a right only for those who express support for the government. When Britain’s The Guardian newspaper reported on police torture in Greece, the government threatened to sue it. And then there is the case of Kostas Vaxevanis, the Greek online reporter who published a list of alleged potential tax evaders: He has been prosecuted twice. Into this mix come an array of private broadcasters many of which are pro-government and are owned by powerful media moguls.

It is not just Greece that finds itself in crisis. Europe as a whole faces a combination of financial and politico-social challenges more far-reaching than at any time since the founding of the European Coal & Steel Union in the ashes of the Second World War. Youth unemployment has reached frightening levels, especially in countries that are struggling under bailouts, like Greece. Extremist parties are on the rise. A dangerous sense of political disaffection prevails. That’s why it’s so important not to undermine, but to bolster the role of public broadcasters, who are already struggling for market share in many countries since well before the current crisis. The Greek government has pledged to reopen a streamlined public broadcaster soon. However, every day that passes with the complete absence of the public broadcaster sends a more chilling message, in a country in which the ghosts of undemocratic military rule in the 1960s and 1970s. Greece was a military dictatorship from 1967 to 1974.

It sends the message that now, of all times, the government, or from the perspective of the people the nebulous powers-that-be, do not want transparency; they do not want people to be informed about the grave implications of the strategy being employed to satisfy the troika’s bailout conditions. A worsening of social conditions? Let’s keep the citizens in the dark. As the saying goes, perception is reality. Now is certainly not the time in Greece, or any other EU country, for governments to be reinforcing a deep-seated sense of disempowerment and alienation, especially among future generations. The very future of the post-second World War European idea is on the line. Streamline the public broadcaster, yes; that’s happened to the BBC too. Cost-cut, yes. But don’t just close the broadcaster down from one moment to the next, leaving nothing but a blank screen. That’s the stuff of military coups. It sends chills down the spines not just of Greek citizens but of those Europeans old enough to remember what it means to live in societies where information is controlled, the narrative is crafted, independent facts are inexistent, and fear prevails.

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