Analysis: What lurks beneath the closure of ERT
The eviction of the remaining staff from former public television’s (ERT) building last night in Athens was a bitter showdown of an unequal brinkmanship. The picture of handcuffs used as a padlock at building’s gate has already become one of historical value. It is a picture from the future of Europe.
But there’s a story behind the picture: Back on June 11th,with no prior notice, the Greek government shut down ERT, suggesting that urgent austerity reforms have been the reason for its decision.
But Nikos Mihalitsis, former director of the technical department of ERT, has analyzed thoroughly that the public broadcaster’s shutdown occurred for other reasons. “One is that the government was going to apply, like it finally did, similar measures to other public organizations and shut down schools and hospitals. So it needed a trial case to measure reaction” and second and most important that private television owners in cooperation with politicians in power are trying to control the future TV market and as a result what information reaches to the public. “The time of the closure is not accidental. ERT was shut down right before the beginning of a tender [which has eventually been postponed for the end of 2014, something that might to an extent be connected to the prolonged standoff with ERT ex-workers] for the establishment of HD networks throughout the country. There are terms in this tender that clearly point to a Greek company that represents the interests of five private TV entrepreneurs, and make sure that no international player would consider bringing an offer” said Mihalitsis.
In Europe, and in most of the world, TV producers are prohibited from owning the distribution networks themselves, as a safeguard of independent broadcasting. Greek law, however, predicts that a TV producer could own a minimum percentage in such a company. This has created leeway for the afforementioned five to create a consortium and claim the tender for HD infrastructure. The consortium (Digea) has already won a tender to establish a smaller HD network covering only key points in Greece.
Absence of ERT means not only lack of a privileged public entity that would affect how HD broadcasting networks are distributed for the benefit of the public but also that a consortium of private actors, in coordination with its political partners, will be able to attempt to control anything broadcasted in the country.
Contrary to benefiting the public by saving it from an ineffective public organization burdened of personnel appointed as a political clientele, which has been partly true, the closure has been estimated to reach over 300 million in losses of rights and compensations for incomplete projects.
The importance of this case was demonstrated by the anxiety of the Ministry of Finance, to which all ERT’s property belongs after its closure, to silence ERT workers that stayed in the premises and kept broadcasting since the 11th of June. Something it failed to do until last night.
While criticism regarding pulling the plug of a public TV overnight started pouring in throughout Europe on June 12th, the European Broadcasters Union (EBU) stepped in and provided a sattelite uplink in order to keep it going. On June 14th its president Jean Paul Fillipot flew to Athens, to warn that the move constitutes an act against democracy, and met with government officials asking them to backtrack on their decision. EBU Head of Institutional Relations Giacomo Mazzone told me in an email exchange at the time that EBU’s intervention was a committed one “because EBU is convinced that public service broadcasting is a primary right of the European citizens and nobody cannot prevented to access such service even for a single day”.
According to Panos Haritos, former ERT’s correspondent in the Middle East based in Jerusalem, a day after EBU’s visit to Athens the Minister of Finance asked from the Greek ambassador in Israel to contact the satellite provider company RRSAT and request ERT off its satellites, through which EBU transmitted its uplink. “The Israeli company accepted the request after the Greek side threatened to move legally against it” Haritos said.
Minister of Finance Giannis Stournaras had also threatened to take legal action against whoever reproduced signal with ERT’s brand while workers of ERT remained in the HQ of ERT and kept broadcasting on a daily. EBU maintained ERT’s TV and radio frequencies via a live stream on its website.
EBU interrupted ERT’s streaming on August 20th after the Greek government launched interim “Public Television” (DT), in which it hired a couple of hundred of ERT personnel and transferred its signal and rights, launched it first news bulletin. Some ERT workers stayed in the old headquarters and went on streaming online (with the help of ThePressProject). Initially DT broadcasting was made possible from private studios linked to some of the biggest private stake holders in Greek television.
The methods employed in eliminating ERT have caused severe political as well as legal criticism and appear to be full of irregularities. For one, the closure has circumvented the parliament and was implemented through a ministerial decree issued jointly by the Minister of Finance and Deputy PM Simos Kedikoglou, ratified only by some of the ministers. Second, according to Mazzone “some strange movements from the portfolio of rights of ERT on sport contracts to some commercial televisions occurred without any transparency and accountable decision”. Finally the ex CEO, and then appointed trustee of ERT, responsible for the broadcaster’s liquidation, Gikas Manalis has sent letters to all workers informing them they are fired since 11th of June. The letters were mailed unsigned and unstamped, and have been characterized as bearing no legal substance from expert constitutional lawyers.
In June the irregularities of the handling of ERT’s case had thrown PM Samaras government into a temporary existential crisis. The PM ignored an order by the Council of State to immediately restore public broadcasting. The government interpreted this decision in accordance with its actions and refused to open ERT, causing a cabinet reshuffling after the third partner of the coalition government, DIMAR, walked off. The new cabinet included a deputy Minister for ERT’s renewal who entered negotiations with workers regarding the future of the organization and the building, failing to create any consensus over the issue.
The closure of ERT by the government of New Democracy and PASOK underlines the nature of the governance with which the country was led through a severe austerity that has lasted already four years. Now based almost entirely on televised manipulation of public opinion, this is a government that takes down yet another opposition voice. Meanwhile it accuses everyone that talks against it of trying to obstruct the process of seeing the country out of this crisis, a moment supposedly close. Meanwhile, the country’s creditors that are in Athens these days are preparing another bitter pill of austerity.