Can Europe Make It?

ERT: the inside story of Greece's free speech experiment

The inside story of ERT - the Greek public broadcaster shut down by the former government, which kept broadcasting in a show of defiance, and was finally re-launched by Syriza last week.

Elliott Goat
15 June 2015
Public broadcasters kicked out of studio, read news bulletin in the street with riot police standing right behind them

Public broadcasters kicked out of studio, read news with riot police behind them. Demotix/epoca_libera. All rights reservedIt is two years since the screens went blank.

On June 11th 2013 the Greek government led by Antonis Samaras announced the immediate closure of Greece’s state broadcaster ERT and the sacking of all 2600 employees.

Hearing this for the first time from their own news coverage many ERT staff were left in a state of shock. ERT’s final news broadcast signed off with a message of thanks to the government. “Congratulations for delivering a blow to democracy.” Many employees still refuse to refer to it as a closure. It is ‘the shutdown, ‘the pause’ or ‘blackout’. In Greece the moment is known collectively as mavros, ‘the black’.

While many viewed the decision to shutdown ERT as an ultimately political act presented as economic prudency and wrapped in the language of austerity there are also suggestions it disguised a drive to monopolise digital terrestrial television in Greece by private media groups closely affiliated to the former Samaras government.

“No, we don’t accept this”

Yet almost immediately the collective decision was made to carry on broadcasting through all remaining available frequencies. “We, all the workers, held a meeting after the government’s decision and decided to say ‘No!’ we don’t accept this... we will resist it,” says Deppy Vretou, programme producer for ERT. “And when we said ‘No!’ it was like something happened inside of us.”

The reaction inside the building was soon mirrored by that outside. In the courtyard and throughout the occupied building events were held: concerts, open discussion groups, opposition roundtables, plays and movie screenings. All the while the ‘illegal’ ERT broadcast continued to be transmitted in defiance of the government order. It is estimated that 1.2 million people tuned in to watch the make-shift broadcasts, seven times the average ERT audience before the shutdown.

Five months later, at 4.30am on the morning of 7th November, in direct violation of laws instigated after Greece’s military dictatorship to protect press institutions and universities, special forces stormed the building, sweeping the offices floor by floor, violently evicting the ‘squatters’ and forming a police cordon around the building. Staff were not even allowed back in to collect their personal belongings.

Nikos Angelidis, who ran the morning breakfast show prior to the closure of ERT, arrived at work that day determined that the broadcast would go-ahead regardless.

“We continued to broadcast directly outside the premises. That day the morning show ran from 7am to 9pm. We were broadcasting through a method that had never been used before in public television - through the internet, using our own money and our own technical support to do the best we could.”

For Agis Menoutis, a producer in international relations, it was a pioneering project – using make-shift studios out in the street, creating and curating their own subjects. “It was very primitive but we had to do it to keep the news bulletins going.”

In a wholly unanticipated show of public support more than half a million people turned out over the next few days to demonstrate the actions of the government.

From a state broadcaster to a nation-wide experiment in free speech

Two responses that repeatedly emerge in conversations about this period are of the ERT employees’ refusal to accept the shutdown (‘No!’ as a political slogan) and their decision (or ‘gamble’) to take control of the entire broadcast process in a ongoing nation-wide experiment in free speech.

Within days of the closure, with financial support from the National Federation of Television and Radio Employees (POSPERT), ex-ERT journalists had set up new premises, under ERT Open, directly across from their former headquarters.

“Our decision to set up opposite the ERT office was very important and symbolic,” says Vretou, “both for them not to forget us but also for us to see what we had lost and ultimately what we were fighting to get back”.

Angelidis decided to take a small team throughout Greece broadcasting shows from each of the 19 regional ERT radio stations that had remained open.

“In the beginning I went by myself, a one man show, then there were two of us, three of us, four, five. We went to help those radio stations – to tell them we are here to support them psychologically – and then into these stations we brought cameras and streamed live as public television. It had to be done on the spot so it was not perfect but it was so much a perfect an idea.”

At each town Angelidis and other ERT volunteers were treated like celebrities and met by hundreds of people who would surround the studio.

At the same time ERT Open garnered international support from both Greece’s expat community and through partnerships with other community-based media organisations. Angelidis advised radio stations in Valencia in the run up the municipal elections and was invited to the European Parliament to discuss the ERT Open experiment.

Daisy Papaconstantinou, a psychologist and programmer who worked on ERT Open, organized a travelling radio show to raise awareness about ERT.

“I took these t-shirts and bulletins and we would organise mobile radio kiosks with people from that region to let them know what was going on, sell merchandise to support the project and build relationships across the country.”

In Thessaloniki, former ERT journalists set about establishing a self-management model based on the horizontal structure of workers’ collective where decisions; from content and programming to production and distribution, were discussed in a group and decided on by a simple majority. To start with there were about 10-12 journalists, technicians and directors on ration every two weeks. The total number working, volunteering and contributing to ERT Open eventually grew to roughly 700 with ‘editorial’ groups ranging from five people to almost a hundred.

Far from merely keeping ERT on the air, ERT Open employees, speaking to activist Marina Sitrin in April, explained how “they were creating new relationships – both in how they worked together and with the concept of the job they were doing.” They described how they were “creating a different sort of news in an entirely different way”.

“We are pirates”, said Stavros Panousis in conversation with Sitrin, “each day we had fewer camera people and reporters from the inside, but life, the real situation, persuaded people to change their point of view and if you – the people – don’t take the microphone and the camera and go outside, there will be no news.”

In scenes reminiscent of partisan operations against the Nazis during the war, technicians with the help of professional climbers installed and activated transmitters in the mountains to broadcast the ERT signal.

Through this combination of online streaming and the use of analogue transmitters ERT Open was able to circumvent traditional media channels and telecommunications companies. By January 2015 coverage reached 87% of the country. It is estimated that over 4.5 million people have tuned into ERT Open sometime over the past two years, almost half the entire population.

“It was vital for the logo of ERT, of ERT Open, to exist everywhere; on every poster, in every theatre and on all self-management broadcasts,” says Vretou. “Every time people saw this logo they could not forget about this reaction and this act of resistance.”

A space for alternative voices in the time of austerity

For many the violent shutdown of ERT provided a microcosm of the wider disintegration of the social contract within Greece, signalling the “end of democracy”  in scenes more reminiscent of the military Junta in the 1970s than in a 21st century EU member state.

For Maria Lila, a former ERT international journalist in the 1990s, it was the catalyst to act. Working during the day at a national newspaper, Lila volunteered her spare time writing news reports and running the radio programme InsideOutBorders for foreigners living in Greece and diaspora Greek’s abroad.

This decision was based as much on symbolism as continuity.

“Given the situation facing immigrants and refugees in Greece [especially the racially motivated violence encouraged and perpetrated by right wing groups such as Golden Dawn] it was important to provide a space for alternative voices that were not represented in the private media” she said.

One example which gained national attention due to ERT Open was the ‘cleaning ladies’ strike. While private news channels, including ERT’s replacement station NERIT, suggested it was the workers who had provoked police and turned the demonstration into a violent protest, ERT Open in Thessaloniki brought cleaners into the studio to counter these claims and challenge the official presentation of events.

Many ERT employees acknowledge the contribution of other workers groups in keeping ERT open and are determined to continue fighting for the rights of those who have yet to get their jobs back.

“There remain so many stories that continue to be ignored,” said Angelidis. “People are committing suicide, people are suffering; families with no water, no electricity – yet the other channels are staying silent... so we cannot.”

This sense of solidarity is one that permeated through the unemployed and dispossessed in Greece, leading to mass disaffection with the Samaras government and the rise of Syriza. “One of the major sources of power came from being out in the streets, at every strike, at the hospitals standing by the people who suffered,” said Vretou.

The end of an experiment?

There are calls for ERT Open to be given its own frequency within the reformatted ERT – to continue to give a voice to the unions and the unemployed – those who refused to go quietly under the last government and were so integral to getting Syriza elected.

“For me, [once ERT re-opens] it would be politically wrong to keep ERT Open still alive... because it was a revolutionary experiment. On the other hand it must not be forgotten.”

Angelidis agrees that the self-management model is not something that was made to last forever but a response to specific circumstances over a certain period of time – something that happens once in a lifetime.

“It put out a message that people should not give up, that they should fight for their work, for their lives, for their families and it was this message that went through other occupations who followed this model and said they are going to fight for this.”

In April a caravan organised by former ERT employees, recuperated factory collective Vio.Me, Solidarity and other workers movements made its way through Greece to Athens to demand the new Syriza government make good its pre-election promises. 

The Greek PM Alexis Tsipras has pledged that the new ERT will function under the principles of transparency, inclusiveness, pluralism and independence. However, before the new broadcaster has even begun transmitting, the government is being accused of duplicity. Many ERT journalists have questioned the lack of transparency and supposedly partisan appointment to ERT’s executive board. Some have also suggested that Syriza’s eagerness to re-launch ERT is an attempt to install a friendly voice in the media at a crucial time domestically and internationally for the government.

“Of course the government took advantage of the political situation,” said Angelidis. “I thought and think the new board should have been picked by people who have been out on the streets for two years fighting for ERT to open. The government made a big mistake and in the end they will pay for this.”

There is no desire to return to the endemic corruption and practice of patronage that previously afflicted ERT, which not only affected the quality of its content but also undermined the perception of ERT employees and led one former state Minister to call them ‘sacred cows’ of the state. However, there are serious questions over the proposed funding model for new ERT programming with only €5 million out of a total €160 million budget left for production and a fear that the new ERT will merely continue in the tradition of Greece’s tainted past state broadcaster while ignoring any lessons from the self-management experiment.

President of POSPERT, Panagiotis Kalfagiannis, has heavily criticised the new legislation which brought ERT into existence saying it is too similar to the models and structure of old calling the new bill a “tombstone for ERT”.

In the end it may be what was done in between that really matters

However, newly appointed ERT CEO Lambis Tagmatarchis, suggests it is too soon to start judging the new ERT. “While €5 million is absolutely not enough to cover content, we are a country in crisis, we can’t make big productions when we don’t even have cotton for hospitals.”

He asserted that the biggest challenge to ERT is to maintain its independence.

“There are two legs in this situation. One leg relies on the independence and objectiveness of the news. If we don’t manage to be independent then I will resign. The other leg is the financial aspect and how society should know how its money is being spent.”

He has called for ERT employees to use the same spirit of creativity that served them under the self-management experiment.

This may prove an impossible task. A recent Open Society Foundation report has revealed the deeply ingrained clientelism within the Greek media with politicians, private media and business operating as a mutually beneficial ‘triangle of power’ – the effects of which have seen Greece fall from 50th to 91st in the World Press Freedom of Speech Index since the start of the financial crisis.

Just as the closure of ERT in 2013 led to the destabilisation of the ruling PASOK coalition (one its partners, Democratic Left, walked out in protest) so the re-launch of ERT has become seen as a reflection of Syriza’s ability to deliver its radical election programme.

“The government came to power with a small boost from us,” concluded Angelidis, “and it is not a stretch to believe that the government could fall due to what is happening here."

In a highly publicised political move to commemorate the re-launch of ERT the Syriza government dedicated the 11th June as a ‘celebration of democracy’ day.

Yet for many at ERT, the date is not just about lofty abstract ideals. It is also a reminder of the sacrifices made over the past two years to keep ERT Open.

“Half of the workers didn’t want [to celebrate this day] because they believe that 11th June is a funeral day – a black day,” says Vretou. “The truth is... on every 11th of the month over the past two years we have gone and protested at the gates of the old ERT building in memory of the 19 colleagues we lost.”

“For the first year and half we were losing someone every month,” says Papaconstantinou.

“Almost all were, in part, psychosomatic; heart attack, cancer, suicide. One colleague miscarried because she was working day and night to keep ERT Open on the air. One colleague was hit by a car whilst crossing the road between the old ERT building and ERT Open – a symbol, perhaps, of the dangers of fighting for free speech.”

There is an acceptance amongst those who were involved with ERT Open over the past two years that this transition period is the most crucial time both for securing the legacy of the self-management experiment and the future of ERT as a viable public broadcaster.

“In the end the 11th June will be written as what?” asks Vretou. “The shutdown of ERT, its re-opening...?”

In the end it may be what was done in between that really matters.

On Thursday the 11th June ERT went back on air broadcasting from their old premises.

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