A critical assessment of the forced closure of ERT, the Hellenic Public Broadcaster

Published for the Association of European Journalists http://www.aej.org

20 November 2013

The Hellenic Public Service Broadcasting Corporation ERT (Elliniki Radiofonia Tileorasi) was shut down abruptly on June 11, 2013. The Greek government laid off over 2900 employees. It claimed that ERT was a wasteful and corrupt institution that had to be ended for economic and quality reasons. The government acted on the demands set by Greece’s creditors to radically restructure the public sector.

In response to an appeal by the Pan-Hellenic Federation of Radio and Television Employee Associations the Council of the State, the supreme administrative Court of the country, objected to the sudden shutdown of ERT and ordered the continued functioning of all television channels, radio stations and websites of public service until such time when a new organization would be able to serve the public interest. The government’s response was the opening of two new TV channels and a website. The closure of ERT should have been validated by Parliamentary vote within 90 days of the issued decision, but this never took place.

At the time it was forcibly closed down, ERT was a profit making organization that had successfully addressed its deficit within the period of crisis. It was not dependent on State budgets and operated from the most modern HQ and with the most modern equipment and human know how in all areas of its activity. ERT had run uninterrupted for 75 years and broadcasted major historical moments of Greece and European and international history, supported and promoted domestic and European cultural production. ERT was not a single channel but a corporation that looked after an enormous, invaluable archive with footage since the beginnings of the 19th century; three major television channels; five central, two Macedonian and 19 regional radio stations across Greece, including  the most remote areas, three orchestras and an international service. ERT was a founding member of the EBU.

For over five months since the closing down of the Broadcaster, former ERT employees in Athens headquarters and ERT3 Thessaloniki continued to work without pay  to keep  the information flow alive, especially to remote areas where they even managed to reinstate receivers after the riot police had switched them off. During this time, those ex-ERT workers  maintained  the ERT buildings and assets, including the archives. In a self-governing system, they maintained job descriptions to the extent these could cover for information needs and to fulfill journalism codes and standards for the productions of a range of news programmes. Public support has been very important in this process, as opinion polls showed that Greek people did not want ERT closed. On a daily base ERT’s premises were open to the public and hosted cultural events that were well attended by the public. Throughout  this period and until now, ERT has operated through Ertopen.com and has been retransmitted through numerous citizen and webmedia around the country and internationally.

Shortly after an EBU meeting in Athens, on November 7, 2013, the government sent the riot police to evict ERT workers from the headquarters building in Athens.. Although the evacuation took place without resistance, the riot police used tear gas  and force against citizens and employees gathered around ERT to protest against the police action and physically hurt two Members of the Parliament. The image of handcuffs used to lock the ERT gate was published by media around the world. Currently ERT3 in Thessaloniki continues to broadcast, as 95% of its former employees continue to work in shifts and managed to deter a riot police operation. The stations of Patras and Crete and most regional radio stations have also remained on air.

The Athens ERT HQ are now under the control of the government. The interim broadcaster Dimosia Tileorasi (DT) which was hastily set up by the government is operating without the expected infrastructure of a public broadcaster or archival material and consists only of one channel. It is directly financed by the State and must therefore be deemed to be under its direct control. The future plans are for all regional broadcasters to be assigned to prefectures. The outcome would be that due to the parlous state of the government’s budget,  frequencies and infrastructure will be privatized and the public service media will be weakened significantly.

There are genuine concerns about the risk of vandalism and looting with regard the ERT HQ assets, as CCTV was shut down while riot police were in the building. During the 40th commemoration of the student uprising (15-17.11.2013) ERT broadcast from within the National Technological University of Athens (NTUA). This was a powerful symbolic move, which was accompanied, according to journalist reports, by government threats to send riot police to NTUA premises. Regional stations and the ertopen.com website are fully operational at the time of writing, and ERT employees have managed to maintain public assets. Proposals by the ERT Union to provide support for the establishment of the new broadcaster NERIT were not accepted by the government. On Monday 18 November, the first in a series of court cases of ERT workers against the Greek public Authority was due to be heard in Heraklion, Crete. It concerns the claim by ERT employees that their dismissal was unconstitutional. The case has been postponed for two weeks.

 

Evaluation of the situation

Overall, the ERT closure presents the legal and political system of Greece as well as of Europe with serious challenges in terms of

  1. fulfilling obligations to national and international instruments,
  2. causing economic loss through the loss of accumulated capital
  3. destruction of  intellectual capital of highly skilled human resources that had been developed in the course of 75 years of continuous operation and investment of ERT
  4. depriving Greek and other European citizens from a cost-effective, highly productive and quality based source of information and culture.

The areas most strongly affected are those of

a. freedom of expression;
b. cultural diversity and collaboration;
c. media pluralism;
d. promotion of European identity;
e. promotion of the European audiovisual industry

Further, the image of the country within the international community resembles that suffered by countries with undemocratic regimes and bad historical record of limitations to freedom of expression and violations of human rights.

The events surrounding the ERT closure give rise to the following observations:

  1. The full disruption of services provided by ERT is in conflict with the spirit of the Greek Constitution that guarantees freedom of speech, the freedom to access and impart information.
  2. It undermines Greece’s obligations under Article 10 of the Convention of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (2010) to offer services to the whole of the country, through internet as well as radio and television.
  3. The closure of ERT comes in direct conflict with the country’s obligation to the protection of Public Service Broadcasting system, as provided by the Protocol on Public Service Broadcasting to the Treaty of the European Community (Treaty of Amsterdam) in 1997.
  4. The closure and firing of the entire staff en masse constitutes a serious blow to the country’s media landscape, by severely affecting pluralism in media sources and content. Currently, Greece is the only EU country without a robust public service broadcasting system.
  5. The ERT closure seriously undermines the obligations of the country to promote cultural diversity in line with UNESCO 2005 Convention on Cultural Diversity, to which Greece is a signatory.
  6. The closure has unforeseeable and potentially catastrophic consequences for the sustained preservation of the corporations’ historical archives of major national and international  events and their digitalization, their subsequent distribution through open platforms to the public and further usage by next generations of cultural actors in Greece and abroad.
  7. In that way, ERT and the Greek State stand accused of breaching agreements with the European Union and other parties in its commitment to make the archives available to public access and use.
  8. The disruption of ERT’s operations has brought about three kinds of avoidable financial burdens with unaccounted for direct and indirect costs in the short- and long term:
    a. significant costs through redundancy payments
    b. deprivation of secured income through disruption of approved grants and rental agreements for European collaborations, digitalization, and general copyright licenses and
    c. additional financial burden to establish a new broadcaster.

Over 400 articles were written about ERT in the mainstream press of Europe and The New York Times and Washington Post. Over 40 European and international organisations have stated their dismay over the closure of the broadcaster, including Amnesty International, Article19, International Federation of Journalists, European Federation of Journalists, International Association for Mass Communication Research (IAMCR), Reporters Without Borders, Index on Censorship, and several national and European associations. Over 500,000 mentions to the ERT closure and violent eviction of its employees are found in social media, Greek and English language press.

In the meantime, the government has appointed employees for the interim broadcaster with questionable transparency procedures. The interim broadcaster already depends on State’s stretched budgets, while the processes of redundancy pay to former ERT employees adds to the costs. It is impossible to accurately estimate the degree of avoidable financial costs without a proper auditing, which has only been carried out by ERT former employees and which is estimated at around 500 million Euro.

The European crisis has put under pressure, not only the economies and welfare in nation states, but also the systems of public services and their governance, in other countries as well as in Greece.

Within this period of financial downturn and political unrest, the need for objective, diverse and pluralistic information is paramount for societies, so that they can lead public debates with the best possible information and proceed to public policy with the best service to the common good. The role of the public service broadcasting system is essential in the process of providing accurate, well researched information and analysis to cover the needs of the whole of society.

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