Blank Screens Spark Greek Protests as TV Shutdown Bites SamarasMarcus Bensasson and Tom Stoukas
When Maria Andriopoulou switches on her television, she no longer knows what to watch now that the Greek government has shut the country’s public broadcaster.
“I never expected that we’d reach this point,” the 49-year-old Athens hotel worker said yesterday. “I’m perplexed by this. They have no right to infringe services like this.”
Popular anger is intensifying in Greece and its islands after Prime Minister Antonis Samaras this week ordered the closing of ERT, which operated seven television channels and 29 radio stations. He also faces a political rebellion that threatens to undermine his government a year after gaining power following two elections in six weeks that raised questions over whether the country would stay in the euro.
Pasok and Democratic Left, which make up the coalition with Samaras’s New Democracy, said they wouldn’t support the law in a parliamentary vote. Samaras, whose party has 125 seats, relies on Pasok’s 28 lawmakers to pass legislation in the 300-seat chamber and the premier will arrange talks today.
“State television belongs to the Greek people,” said Panos Kammenos, leader of Independent Greeks, a small opposition party that submitted a censure motion against the government. “It is the signal broadcast to Thrace, contrasting with Turkish television’s propaganda. It is our link with the islands of the Aegean. It is our voice in the diaspora.”
ERT began television broadcasting in 1966 and continued through the years of military dictatorship that began the following year and lasted until 1974.
For hundreds of isolated islands, it was the link with the Greek mainland, a “window to the rest of the world,” Pavlos Vogiatzis, a New Democracy lawmaker for the island of Lesvos, told the local Radio Kalloni yesterday.
It was ERT that told Greeks, first via radio and then by television, of then Prime Minister George Papandreou’s unexpected announcement on April 23, 2010, that he would trigger the euro area’s first financial rescue. He was visiting the island of Kastelorizo, Greece’s eastern outpost.
Leros, an Aegean island close to the border with Turkey “demands to hear Greek radio and watch Greek television, not Turkish television,” Michael Kolias, the island’s mayor, said in an e-mailed statement yesterday.
ERT employees continued to broadcast over the Internet, while journalists nationally are striking for a second day. Unions called a 24-hour walkout that will disrupt flights, public transportation and government services.
Samaras meanwhile is sticking to his decision. The announcement “should have been made years ago,” he said in a speech in Athens yesterday. He pledged to restore “true public television with the most radical reform.”
ERT is funded by a license fee of about 50 euros ($66.70) levied through electricity bills. Its revenue amounted to 319 million euros in 2011, according to the organization’s most recent financial statement.
“The old statist system definitely had to change but there still has to be a public TV because it offers things the private sector doesn’t,” said Michalis Giannopoulos, 55, another hotel employee in the Greek capital. “This was rushed. These things normally need some discussion.’
The company has never been far away from politics. An information booklet on Greece from 2007, produced by the last New Democracy government, said ERT’s “one-time role as a mouthpiece of government propaganda” led to an erosion of its credibility with the public. Deregulation in the 1980s resulted in the proliferation of private TV channels, it said.
Samaras, 62, clashed with the state-run broadcaster in the past. Two morning-show journalists were replaced in October 2012 after they made critical comments about Public Order Minister Nikolaos Dendias. The dismissals provoked a protest on Nov. 1.
“State television works for the party in office,” George Pleios, head of communication and media Studies at the National University of Athens, said yesterday. “I’m not so sure this time we’re going to have something different. The evidence of that is the way the minister closed the state television, in a non-democratic, authoritarian way.”
Criticism of that style of government has led to violent clashes in neighboring Turkey, where Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is facing down protesters in Istanbul after a police crackdown began on May 31. Among their gripes is influence on a media industry they say is driven by appeasing the government.
In Greece, the signal for the public television channels was switched off by the Finance Ministry shortly before midnight on June 11. Government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou announced plans to suspend the 2,600 jobs at ERT. A new, smaller company called NERIT will be created instead.
French Culture Minister Aurelie Filippetti, talking to reporters after the weekly cabinet meeting in Paris yesterday, called the decision to close ERT “deplorable.” “Austerity cannot be a reason to eliminate pluralism in media,” she said.
The move wasn’t related to any demands by Greece’s euro area and International Monetary Fund lenders and is due to ERT’s costs and a lack of transparency, said Kedikoglou.
Under an agreement with international creditors, Greece is required to reduce the number of workers on the state payroll by 15,000 by the end of 2014. Pasok, which governed between 2009 and 2011 as Greece sought aid, said it disagreed with the decision and the government’s handling of it.
“The risks of the coalition splitting are higher than they have been in the recent past,” Alexander White, a European political analyst at JPMorgan Chase & Co. in London, said in a note yesterday. “The sudden appearance of blank screens across the country will enter the public consciousness in a way which other measures may not have done.”
Kedikoglou said the new company would be fully independent and broadcasts will resume “soon.” Employees would be compensated for the loss of their jobs and would be free to apply to the new company, he said.
“I’m very unhappy that ERT has closed, very unhappy,” said Andriopoulou, the hotel worker. “We expected a level of cultural output that ERT usually gave. Not 100 percent of the time, but 90 percent of the time. Now if I turn on the TV I don’t know what to watch.”