PROLOGUE – 11 June: The night of the shutdown

It all started in Parliament.

It was a quiet Tuesday morning at the office. Drinking my first espresso of the day, I was barely glancing at the newspapers’ headlines. They all focused on yesterday’s big story, the Russian corporation Gazprom’s refusal to reach a deal with the Greek Government and Prime Minister Antonis Samaras on the privatization of the state gas companies DEPA and DESFA. You could sense the tone of harsh criticism in the air, as this deal was supposed to be a strategic move on the government’s chessboard for achieving the privatization goals that the Troika had set for this year. “The loss of 900 million Euros expected to benefit public funds puts Greece off the privatization targets and opens the possibility for new measures to fulfil the Troika’s demands,” international news agency Reuters reported. “The Russian retreat”, “Government running out of gas”, “Russian salad”, “Success story turned into fiasco”, “The wreck” were some of the imaginative Greek newspaper headlines describing the situation.

I signed in to social media. I was not there for five minutes when I received a private message from a fellow journalist. Being a reporter for parliamentary issues, he is always my first source on breaking news. “Have you heard the rumours?” he wrote to me. “Something is going on with ERT today. Check it out.” Half an hour and a few phone calls later, I had a presentiment of the events. Apparently, last night, after the fiasco in the negotiations with Gazprom, New Democracy, the main party in the coalition government, was designing its next move. Ideas circulated in an unofficial meeting pointed out ERT – the Greek Broadcasting Corporation – as an ideal target in the strive to impress the Troika with its demands for privatizations and lay-offs in the public sector. The rumour had not been confirmed yet, so I wasn’t worried about the extent of the events to follow.

And then it started to climax in Parliament. Information leaked from the morning session began to spread in journalistic offices: the Government Cabinet had presented in Parliament a legislation that implied the shutdown of the Greek public broadcasting corporation.

Emergency Law

Everything became clear around noon, when the already infamous act was officially published in the “Governmental Gazette”. The Act of Legislative Content A139/11.06.2013/FEK Number 2087 (in Greek), issued that morning with immediate effect, enabled Greek ministers to merge or shut down public institutions under their responsibility and sack their staff with a simple signature, allowing Government to circumvent Parliament on such crucial matters.

To understand the irony of using Parliament in order to circumvent it, it is important to consider what an “Act of Legislative Content” really is. The Greek Constitution provides this legislative means for cases of extreme emergency such as a war, an epidemic, an earthquake, a tsunami. It is a decree procedure that enables government ministers to enact legislation immediately and seek the subsequent approval of Parliament within three months.

Only the New Democracy Party’s Ministers had approved and signed the Act. The coalition partners were frustrated and their Ministers refused to sign the Act. Evangelos Venizelos, the controversial leader of the once powerful Socialist Party (PASOK) and Fotis Kouvelis, the moderate leader of the Democratic Left Party (DIMAR) communicated their anger over the breach of the most important rule of the coalition government agreement: Any bill or act or measure should be discussed and approved by the coalition partners prior to being presented to Parliament.

I was sensing the heat of the historic moment. Social media were on fire. Every journalist or person related to politics I knew was convinced that this Act was issued that morning particularly in order to shut down ERT. ERT TV and radio channels dropped their scheduled programmes and devoted their time to breaking news on ERT and to discussing the meaning of the events, while the whole media sector was starting to prepare for the announcement of what until that morning seemed unimaginable.

Meanwhile in the Government headquarters, Prime Minister Antonis Samaras was holding an urgent meeting with his close associates. An informal press update around 16.00 confirmed that the government’s spokesman – and at the same time minister responsible for ERT – Simos Kedikoglou had signed the closure of ERT.

It wasn’t until the evening news bulletin at 18.00, when Simos Kedikoglou, a grey-haired middle-aged politician, stepped in front of the press and went on air for the most important moment of his political career: the official announcement that government had shut down ERT. Simos Kedikoglou, the son of an experienced elder politician and a former ERT privileged journalist, seemed prepared for this occasion since a long time.  His well-determined, chilly voice announced:

ERT is a characteristic case of unique opacity and unbelievable wastage. And that ends today. The government has decided to close ERT. A modern television and audio broadcaster will be established in its place and will operate as soon as possible.”

Corruption and mismanagement, he stated, were the key-reasons for this decision. “ERT is a typical case of public sector waste, with six times more personnel than it needs and low ratings. There is a total lack of transparency in management and extremely high costs due to antiquated union privileges.”

The new agency would be staffed by far fewer employees, who would be recruited through the Supreme Council for the Selection of Personnel”, he added. Careful not to give a specific timeframe but implying that a period of at least three months is needed, he said that the current ERT employees “can re-apply for new positions.”

The conclusion of his speech addressed the controversial broadcast fee – ERT’s main source of financing. The broadcast fee of 4.30 Euros per month was invoiced from all Greek households via the electricity bill, totalling 300 million Euros per year. “There will be no broadcast fee until the new agency has been established”, he insisted, adding that the new fee is expected to be significantly lower, with the overall amount reaching 100 million Euros per year.

And by saying that, Simos Kedikoglou left the press conference.

In the crowded, noisy control room of what until that moment had been ERT, a significant number of people were watching his speech unable to stay calm. Every time he referred to corruption and mismanagement, the workers were enraged. By the time Simos Kedikoglou stepped down from the podium, their decision had been already made.

It clearly seemed like a declaration of war.

Half an hour later, ERT staff had occupied the ERT headquarters on Mesogeion Avenue, in Agia Paraskevi, a northern district of Athens, and started broadcasting a strike bulletin on the frequency of the second State TV channel NET.

In one of the many meeting areas of the historic building, the employees held a general assembly. Trembling from the tension of the moment, they decided to set aside all their long-standing personal disagreements and unite for a common cause. Soon after they issued a press release. To an impartial reader, it was one of the best declarations ever written on what a public service broadcaster should be.

 

ERT IS WIDE OPEN

ERT should be open: open to society, to its contradictions, to its problems, to its fears and to its ideas.

ERT should be open: open to culture, to the world, to various aspects of life..

ERT should be open to every citizen of the world, in Europe, in America, in Asia, in Africa, in Australia.

All of us working for the Greek Public Radio and Television have the will and the potential to contribute to the improvement of high standards for the public goods of information, culture and sports. All of us working for the Greek Public Radio and Television are committed to fight against any effort of manipulation by any kind of authority. We workers are alive and we will struggle for an operational framework for ERT that safeguards the independence and the public character of ERT and will cut any attachment to any government influence and any kind of patronising by different centres of authority.

ERT should be open and should belong to all Greek citizens.

Anyone who is trying to violently shut down the Greek Public Radio and Television is trying to favour other kinds of interests far from the public ones. These people are dangerous.

We, Public Radio and Television journalists, hereby promise to do our best to keep ERT open in every and any way we can. We call upon every citizen, from Gavdos to Evros, to help us prevent this nightmare. All of us will send a clear message to anyone who is trying to make this nightmare come true that we are alert. We are holding an ongoing general assembly and we are calling upon citizens, social and political agencies, scholars, people of arts and letters to join us at 7 pm at the ERT headquarters in Aghia Paraskevi. We shall stand firm. ERT IS OPEN AND WILL REMAIN SO.”

They were emphatic and clear.

They were there to continue operating ERT’s transmission despite the government decree and to guard the building on a 24-hour basis. The call for a protest outside the headquarter building at 19.00 was the next step.
I was already on my way and my smartphone wouldn’t stop ringing. Within half an hour I had received more than thirty invitations to join the protest; all political parties, journalists, friends, colleagues, even some elderly relatives of mine were heading to ERT.

Alexis Tsipras, the leader of the main opposition party, the radical left SYRIZA, was the first politician to be captured on camera. Sensing the unique opportunity of the moment, the young and communicative politician stated in an aggressive tone: “This is a coup not only against the employees but the entire Greek people…This is an attack against democracy…This is exactly what the Troika wants: manslaughter…

Within the government, the political battle continued. The two coalition partners were in fighting mode against New Democracy.  PASOK requested an immediate meeting of government leaders and clarified its complete disagreement with New Democracy’s handling of the issue, stating in its press release: “That is why the legislative act is not signed by PASOK ministers. PASOK has made it clear that it will not ratify the legislative act in Parliament”. DIMAR issued a press release pointing out that “it is inconceivable for a modern and European country to not have a public television station – even for an hour” and demanded the retraction of ERT’s shutdown until a new Greek public broadcaster is established.

Journalists’ reaction was also outraged.

The journalist union ESIEA condemned the government’s decision, called for a mobilization against the “closure of Public Radio and Television that is unprecedented in a democratic country” and asked government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou to hand in his Press ID and resign from the union’s ranks.

The editors’ association POESY issued a press release, underlining its support for the struggle of ERT employees and announcing a six-hour work stoppage in all private TV and radio stations.

The end of the line

I was about to reach ERT headquarters. I had been driving for about an hour for a distance that usually takes 15 minutes. But apparently this was not a usual day. I made the last five hundred meters on foot. It wasn’t even 21.00 yet, but ERT workers and several unions of the public and private sector had filled ERT headquarters’ courtyard and a tremendous number of people had started gathering outside the building to express their solidarity.

Carrying my camera, I managed to get inside the building. The workers had transformed it into a gigantic operations centre. People everywhere talking about the events mingled with ERT staff struggling to spread all information they had. I was walking up and down the floors to get a sense of the atmosphere of the occupation.

It was then that the last official news bulletin of ERT reached its end. Elli Stai, its infamous anchorwoman, could hardly stop the tears on her face when she announced the end. Without a commercial break – anyway meaningless from that point on – she gave her seat to her colleagues who would be there until the transmission ended, discussing the events with many guests.

It was the first time that night that I thought this action had mostly to do with our collective memory.

Another element of irony lay in the fact that it had nothing to do with pleasing the Troika. In fact, ERT was not a burden but a boon to the national budget. It did not affect taxes because it was paid for by a separate broadcast fee. And despite allegations of wastage – and in stark contrast to the loss-making private broadcasters –, ERT continuously had been writing black numbers. Since 2010, by cutting salaries and staff it had accumulated a surplus of more than 100 million Euros. After the shutdown of ERT this money, that would have benefitted the national budget, will now be eaten up by the severance payments to its former employees and claims for compensation for damages by rights holders. Economically, closing ERT was sheer nonsense. Neither could sacrificing it to make good for the Gazprom fiasco have made the Troika happy. Thus the real rationale behind this spectacular move has yet to be uncovered.

Meanwhile, the police showed up.

When night fell, many units started to surround the three main ERT buildings: the Mesogeion Avenue Headquarters, the Katechaki Avenue Offices and the Mourouzi Street Studios. Media reports from the last building stated that police prevented workers from entering the building.

News was spreading that demonstrations against ERT’s shutdown started in every major city of Greece; in Thessaloniki, Patra, Ioannina, Mytilene.

Around 21.30, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) issued an Open Letter to Prime Minister Antonis Samaras to “express profound dismay on behalf of Europe’s entire public service media community at reports that ERT – a founding Member of the EBU in 1950 – has been shut down with immediate effect. This is a damning first in the history of European broadcasting. As the EBU’s President and Director General, we urge you to use your powers to immediately reverse this decision.”

The Ministry of Finance replied with an announcement at 22.00 stating that “ERT as a legal body no longer exists. Broadcast transmission must stop. The Finance Minister is obliged to protect the building and the facilities.”

Mesogeion Highway was closed for cars and people.

The ERT staff put a podium and loudspeakers in the courtyard and cleared a spot for the orchestra. A concert was announced with many major Greek artists present. The atmosphere became festive. Journalists, lawyers, artists, politicians and union representatives started speaking to the crowd. Slogans mixed with applause and songs. Elderly people were crying unable to understand what had happened that day.

It was then I realized what it was all about.

For sure there were many reasons to be there that night. It was a matter of democracy, a matter of freedom of press, a matter of solidarity with sacked workers.

But what was important, what differentiated that protest from all the others I’ve observed in Greece since the financial crisis started and former Prime Minister Giorgos Papandreou in 2010 signed the Memorandum inviting the so-called “Troika” of the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund to govern Greece, was above all, that the events of that night revealed clearly the loss of collective memory.

It was that night that most Greeks realized that our country had lost its independence. The symbolic gesture of shutting down the public broadcaster meant to all gathered there that the government was shutting down the only TV and radio channels that reminded them what Greece once was.

Black Screen

At 23.00 riot police units started to switch off the transmitters in various parts of the country. ERT reported that the police units were approaching its main broadcasting centres on Imittos Mountain (Athens broadcasting transmission centre) and Hortiatis Mountain (Thessaloniki broadcasting transmission centre) to confront ERT workers who were guarding the antennas.

By that time in ERT studios, Giannis Zouganelis, a middle-aged musician, comedian and actor, one of the most popular multi-talented artists in Greece, was speaking on air. He was moved, as he said, because the gathered crowd “reminded” him “of the night of the 17th of November 1973”, the night the Junta had used tanks to attack the occupation of the Polytechnical School of Athens that protested against the Greek dictatorship regime.

In a dramatic and ironic turn of events, that particular moment ERT’s signal was cut in Athens and replaced by a black screen that read: “No Signal.”

Until midnight all analogue and digital transmissions of ERT went down, as well as the web transmission and the ERT.gr website. BBC, Deutsche Welle, RIK (Cyprus TV) and Parliament TV that were transmitted through ERT also were cut off.

Until 01.00, ERT World had stopped broadcasting on satellite.

I was experiencing the death of a national emblem.

Immediately after the appearance of the black screen, efforts for transmitting ERT’s signal through external facilities started. Various Greek websites and blogs, along with EBU, Euronews and many other European TV channels started retransmitting the lost signal.

A 48-hour media strike was announced by the Athens Daily Newspaper Editors’ Union, followed by a general strike announcement on 13 June by the Civil Servants’ Union ADEDY and the General Confederation of Workers GSEE.

At 03.00 the main gate of the ERT headquarters was closed and ERT staff called on people to remain outside in order to prevent riot police from invading the building.

Police forces had already achieved to clear the two other buildings of ERT. Outside Mourouzi Street Studios a huge police unit remained to guard the infrastructure.

Until 05.00, riot police circled the headquarters, demanding evacuation of the building. Any ERT worker arrested would be excluded from severance payment and not be eligible for recruitment in the new public broadcasting agency.

The staff of ERT and the gathered crowd refused to clear the building. Government hesitated to order a brutal police attack and police eventually stepped back.

The situation relaxed. Everyone was tired.

It was 06.00 when I left the ERT headquarters. I caught a first glimpse of the morning sun. Mesogeion Avenue was almost empty. I started driving home, still hearing the echo from the speakers in ERT’s headquarters behind me.

The day that ERT went black had reached its end.

Day one of the ERT’s occupation had just started.

When I woke up next morning, 12 of June of 2013, I found Greece on a completely different page of its history.

 
 
 

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