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Battle rages on over Greek Govt closure of Public Broacasting
Greek government shuts down the public broadcasting corporation with less than one day's notice; it goes pirate and calls for public support; the government learns it's bad to piss off the press (or does it?); the Greek people in struggle gain a voice, but for how long?
On Monday June 10 local and international press got the story that the deal to sell DEPA, a Greek government natural gas company, to a Russian private firm Gazprom, had fallen through, dealing a heavy blow to the Greek prime minister's attempts to create a local climate of optimism about the economic course of the country.
In the meantime the three-party coalition government faced a deadline from the "troika" (IMF, European Commission and European Central Bank) to fire 2000 public sector workers before the end of June, in order to qualify for the next "dose" of loan payouts; 15000 workers must be laid off by 2015.
On Tuesday June 11 the government spokesperson Simos Kedikoglou announced that all broadcasts of ERT (Hellenic Radio-Television) would be taken off the air after the end of the day's programming, meaning that 2600 public employees would be laid off immediately. This was implemented not by a law passed by Parliament but by an executive "action with legislative content"; such actions can be taken only in case of emergency circumstances, and they must be ratified by a parliamentary vote in no more than 40 days.
The leaders of the two smaller parties in the government coalition both said that they would not support such legislation. The journalists and technicians and other workers of ERT occupied the ERT3 building and vowed to continue broadcasting, calling for people to come to the building and protect it from potential police raids.
The government spokesperson made a later announcement that ERT as a corporation had been abolished and that the Ministry of Finance would now take over responsibility for all of its physical installations.
At 11 pm local time the analog signal began to be cut around the country as riot police went to different installations and cut off the transmissions. By midnight the last digital signal had also been pulled. Greece was now the only European country without a functioning public broadcaster. These are the last few moments of the broadcast, showing the huge crowds outside the building, before the abrupt 'no signal' flashed on the screen: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vzlh841PtOw The last time Greece's public broadcaster signal was cut off was in 1941, when the Germans invaded. You can hear it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TFU4F_Hg0UI
Besides the television channels and the radio stations of local or national reach, the web site and the ERT archives, including a wealth of historical material, were also closed. Contracts that ERT used to hold for, for example, athletic events, began to be transferred to a private channel known for its ties to the prime minister's party.
Thousands of people had gathered outside of the ERT3 building; support from local and international journalists started pouring in; the EBU (European Broadcasters Union) offered and began to carry the signal via satellite and the web; some radio stations began to rebroadcast ERT programming. A general strike was called for Thursday for both the public and private sectors, all radio and tv stations went on strike and the newspapers followed a day later, announcing rolling 24 hour strikes until the government recalled its directive.
Six crazy days
Since then there have been activities including people's assemblies and concerts every day and evening at ERT3, including a historic concert of all of the state orchestras and choirs in solidarity with ERT workers. Large crowds of people are there from mid day through late into the night and early morning hours. ERT technicians play a game of hide and seek with the government (and the cops) finding new frequencies and new ways of getting their signal out when the old ones are cut off. The battle continues for control of the web site and the domain name as well; sometimes it's available and sometimes not. A list of rebroadcasters of ERT programs is here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1CkrraYzYyP6C1eaJRE31l9db2q9G9tboUJh0ODc-6UQ/
Over the past few days the number of banners has grown from a few on the fence as one approaches the building to banners everywhere you look, tents are now set up for organization points, infrastructure is being built. As I walked through the crowd last night I heard snatches of conversation all intensely political, comparing it all to other political uprisings in the past.... and all intensely hopeful.
Last October when 15 demonstrators from a motorcycle protest had been arrested and went to the press with their story of being tortured by police when they were held, a journalist on one of ERT's morning broadcasts called on the government to respond to these accusations. She was immediately removed from the broadcast which was shortly therafter cancelled. The spectre of government control and intervention was never far away from the minds of the reporters and the announcers. Since ERT went "pirate", workers have been freed to say what they want to whom they want and in the way that they want. ERT3 has begun hosting discussions of various groups in struggle for their rights, openly daring to criticize the antidemocratic policies of austerity imposed by the government. Viewing ratings from EBU show that on day 2 alone of the "pirate" ERT there were 485,000 viewers from inside of Greece, in a country of 11 million people.
The government is in full spin control mode, insisting that ERT will remain closed until a new "corruption free" corporation (with much greater government control) is opened, but that in the interim there could be a small group of journalists and technicians that would braodcast the basic news and then rerun old documentaries. In the meantime they have assigned a special proscutor to look for cases of corruption in ERT contracts on an expedited basis, over the period of the last ten years, and the prime minister has given two speeches about the topic, as well as sending out all of his ministers to spread his message. He has also started alluding to the fact that the European "partners" insist on 2000 layoffs and this is therefore necessary for us to get our "dose" of funding.
We had two months of generall assemblies in Syntagma in the summer of 2011 and couldn't sustain it in the face of government crackdown and our own inability to self-organize the movement effectively. This is the first time since then that we've had folks from diverse backgrounds and political beliefs coming together in solidarity. There's every chance to get it wrong. The government still has most of the media at its disposal to spread its message, and we have short attention spans and are easily swayed by the latest lies.
In addition our public broadcasting organization is not problem-free. As with most sectors in Greece, there is waste, corruption, cronyism, and a history of governments appointing ideologically friendly persons to various positions with outrageous pay. The journalism, while never falling to the level of propaganda on the private party-affiliated tv channels, has not been known for groundbreaking reporting on the struggles of the Greek people these last 3 years. In spite of that, it's basically the only broadcaster that produces documentaries or tv series about historical events or traditions, or that gives a voice to folks in the smaller villages. It's also the only brodcaster with a signal that reaches some areas of the country. How do we demand the ERT we want and deserve, and how do we put this demand into the greater context of our struggle against the austerity policies and the assault on democracy on all fronts?
To put it in a nutshell: ww couldn't overthrow the government over the detention centers for immigrants, or the backpedalling on the antiracism law so as to cater to the neonazis in Parliament (not rhetorical, go look up "Golden Dawn" "political party"), or the civil conscription of transport workers or the civil conscription of all secondary school teachers nationwide, we're going to do it for public broadcasting? But, well, here we are...
What happens next
All of this is happening on a very compressed timeline, because folks have taken the issue to court, and we are awaiting an emergency ruling from the highest court on a stay or not of the directive, either Monday June 17 or Tuesday June 18, depending on which source you read. The timing is important because there will be a last ditch effort on Monday of the three government coalition partners to reach an agreement about ERT. The two leaders of the smaller parties have said they will not discuss any laws about a replacement for ERT while it is not operating, and they are not giving an inch any more than the prime minister.
If they stick to their positions this would logically lead to the falll of the government and new elections. Unofficially we hear that leaders from Germany, America and elsewhere have put tremendous pressure on them to not dare to destabilize the government. The face-saving solution for them all would be a court ruling that orders the government to recall the directive, thus allowing the prime minister to say that he didn't give in but must of course comply with the law, and the smaller partners to say that they didn't give in and all is well. If the court instead waits for them to decide before it rules, they will be forced to put up or shut up.
There's another general assembly today at 6 pm, plus an amazing lineup of performers for tonight's solidarity concert. We've got one or maybe two days left to organize the revolution :-D We might not get done in time. But these few days when public broadcasting was really free in Greece will be remembered for long after this government finally falls, whenever its time comes.