Monday, June 24, 2013

ERT: How to shut down a national broadcaster!

While I was visiting my home country this summer, something that hasn't happen since the Nazi occupation of the country took place once again.

Greece's national broadcasting channel, ERT (ΕΡΤ) was shut down with a snap decision by the country's PM, Mr. Samaras.

All of its three TV channels were shut down overnight with very little notice, debate or public consultation. There have been of course efforts to reform the establishment since the crisis begun, but they were turned down by the channel's executives and employees.

It is no secret that ERT, like most other Greek state owned companies needed reforms and a good shake up. There have been numerous scandals and many more rumors about the way that the Greek national broadcaster operated for decades. 

All Greeks agree that something needed to be done, but most of us disagree with the way it was done. Imagine if Britain for example decided to shut down BBC overnight, because some of its executives were overpaid and there was evidence of corruption. A national broadcasting channel is under the ownership of the nation, it is a national symbol and so it should only be shut down if the nation demands so.

Greece is not the only European country that witnessed chronic corruption in its state media. How about Italy and many more EU states? In which country the Prime Minister ever decided, without the agreement of the leaders of the co-governing parties, to shut down the national broadcaster?

Mr. Samaras literally gave an ultimatum on the morning of the 11th of June that at 23.00 pm, the signal of all three channels of ERT will be terminated. There have been rumors even that some of Mr. Samaras well-doers went and cut the wires in some stations, forcibly shutting down their signal. 

In this way and in times of a severe crisis, 2,700 ERT employees were suddenly found themselves unemployed. I do not understand how this can help the country's economy, by increasing the number of the job seekers while you create no new job opportunities in the country.

I personally liked ERT and its programs, as its channels were the only ones in Greece that kept some quality standards. While most of the other private owned channels broadcast reality shows, gossip/life-style chat shows and Turkish soap operas, ERT was occasionally producing interesting documentaries, educative shows for kids and adults alike.

Of course that is not enough to keep ERT going the way it was. But not all of its employees were overpaid, lazy and useless to the broadcaster and the state. Some of them were just doing their job, but they were sacrificed to punish the few overpaid executives, or some employees who got the job just because of their affiliation to a certain political party.

If Mr. Samaras wanted to clean up ERT why didn't he just fire those who were not useful, or slash the salaries of the highly paid executives? He showed a very decisive stance in his effort of finding a solution, but why did he chose to close ERT altogether?

Following the closure of ERT, there have been many reactions by its employees, the public and the other two party leaders that form the coalition government, Mr Venizelos of PASOK and Mr. Kouvelis of DIMAR. The later decided eventually to leave the coalition government, leaving Mr. Samaras and his New Democracy party with a very dangerously thin majority government.

Mr. Samaras allegedly did not seek the agreement of the other two leaders, who openly have distanced themselves from him since his drastic action to shut down ERT. There have been protests outside the buildings of ERT and a general strike of most journalists in Greece, in support of their colleagues in ERT.

That has left the country without a news broadcast for almost a week and a havoc in the streets of many Greek major cities, due the strikes organized by the Journalists' Union of the country. It has also affected the sensitive political stability of the country, that is crucial for Greece's economic recovery and reforms.

During the first week after Mr. Samaras' decision, there was very little information on his future plans about ERT. In the beginning it was announced the final closure of the station and the reopening of a new state broadcaster in the days that would follow. Following the reactions by the other two coalition parties and the public, it was announced that ERT would reopen until the establishment of this new state channel.

It was also stated that many of the ERT employees would be reemployed by the new channel. Some rumors mentioned that they would have to accept a new, much lower salary from what they were earning with ERT and a new type of contract. Nothing was clear for days, as debates and negotiations were taking place daily between the government parties and many assumptions and scenarios were discussed in the privately owned media.

Even now the situation is not clear and Greece will most likely have general elections by autumn, as most analysts predict. The Greek public is also divided. Most disagree or feel outraged by Mr. Samaras' decision, but there are those who support it. In their view, it was about time something to be done about ERT and they feel little compassion of its employees. They see them as opportunists that got their job by having government connections.

That is true for some of them, but again I do not like generalizations. It is not only their fault that the Greek political system was based on blind party support, in exchange for a good job in the public sector. The blame should fall on all of us, who tolerated such political reality.

And by cutting 2,700 jobs, you immediately remove 2,700 salaries that were contributing into our economy and market. That is not good for all of us, as it does not help our economy in a period that there are no jobs around.

Plus we do not have sufficient information on who will run this new state broadcaster. There have been various efforts in many other countries of Europe, notably Hungary and recently Bulgaria in changing the rules in national media. They all have met the public's opposition and with a good reason.

When a government decides to take drastic control of a country's media, we should all be alarmed. In Greece's case the situation is even worse, as it was not a majority government that made that decision, rather just one of the parties that form the coalition government.

What guarantees do we have about the future of free and fair media in Greece, since we do not even know when, how and with what criteria this new "better" national broadcaster will be formed? Who and how will control it and who will be involved?

And in the end of the day if Mr. Samaras wants to really show his fist and make further drastic reforms in Greece, will he proceed with similar decisiveness in reforming the Greek Parliament and the Greek political system? It is there where the hammer must fall harder, as it is the root of all injustice and corruption in the country.

Muting dissident journalists that uncover government scandals, stopping protests by using violence, forbidding strikes of public servants (notably the teachers that were threatened with arrest or dismissal if they went ahead with their strike plans over further wage cuts), are not practices that happen in a democratic country. Greece is slipping backwards socially, politically and culturally in a economic crisis fueled new kind of fascism. 

I am reserving my final judgement for the outcome of Mr. Samaras' and the current government's actions for the future. I agree that some drastic measures must be taken, in order to proceed with the much needed reforms for our country. But so far we have seen only economic reforms that impoverish our people and benefit the global economic elites.

No political reforms were ever made in Greece or Europe in general since the crisis, that will offer long term solutions to our woes. And that is why I am very skeptical of the motives behind these reforms.



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