The day Greece’s TVs went dark

Hilary Wainwright reports from Thessaloniki on what happened when the state ordered Greece’s state broadcaster to shut down

June 17, 2013
9 min read


Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute. @hilarypepper


  share     tweet  

ert-hqProtesters outside ERT headquarters

At 11.30 on the evening of 12 June, the TV screens in the Thessaloniki office of the Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation (ERT) went blank. Black. For a few moments there was the silence of shock and disbelief.

A few hours earlier, when prime minister Samaras had announced his unilateral decision, taken at 6pm the same day, he’d said midnight would be the cut off moment. But this lost half-hour was not the main reason for the glum, bewildered look on people’s faces in the newsrooms and studios of the ERT in the capital of Northern Greece. Staring at the black screens where normally there would be regional news programmes, and lively educational and cultural programmes, triggered bad memories: ‘The last time public television was switched off by direct intervention by the government was in 1973 under the dictatorship of the military junta,’ said Panos Karresis, an editor in chief at the Thessaloniki office. ‘When people see the black screens, the crowds outside will grow.’

This is about democracy

Already 800 had gathered outside as news broke of the sudden closure of Greece’s only public TV station and with it the immediate loss of 3,000 jobs. Crowds of tens of thousands were gathering outside the ERT offices in Athens. And despite the pouring rain in Thessaloniki, people kept arriving. This combination of protest and solidarity with a determination to take control and thwart the prime minister’s decision is clearly about more than jobs: ‘The presence of the crowds empowers us to find other ways of broadcasting, they are encouraging us,’ said Yannis Angelis, an ERT journalist. The staff and supporters alike are clear: the fight against Samaras is about democracy.

Swelling the crowd were 200 or so from an assembly held earlier in the evening of ‘SOSte Nero’, an alliance of unions, co-operatives, municipalities against the privatisation of the regional water company. For them too the struggle was for democracy and for fundamental social rights. ‘We know there is corruption in ERT; what we are concerned to save is public broadcasting,’ insisted George Archontopoulos, president of the water workers union, who had been chairing the earlier assembly against water privatisation. ‘Three channels, local radio across the country, film archives back to the 30s. This is about democracy – all essential for democracy.’

By midnight, Panos, Yannis and their journalist and technical colleagues were back on air. The programme consisted of a panel of well-known cultural figures condemning and discussing the implications of the government’s action, with a stream of contributions from citizens coming in from the protest outside to say what they thought. Again and again the memory of the Junta was evoked in condemnation of the closure. I brought solidarity from Europe: ‘Your struggle for democracy in Greece is a struggle that concerns the whole of Europe. A threat to the freedom of expression is a threat to democracy. We will help you in whatever way we can,’ I said on air. It and all the other expressions of support were received with enthusiasm. (There are links at the end of this article to ways to help.)

News was coming in of opposition to the closure from Bishops of the Greek Orthodox Church – not a usual critic of the government. Elsewhere on the political spectrum, the KKE (the Greek Communist Party) came out in support of the protests, in an unusual show of unity. Alexis Tsipras, the leader of Syriza, made a strong speech soon after Samaras’ announcement, calling on Pasok and Dimar (a split from Pasok) to leave the coalition in protest. The leaders of these rump parties spluttered their objections but without any clear threat to leave the coalition. Opinion polls now put support for Pasok down from 13 per cent at the last elections to 7 per cent, Dimar from 7 to as low as 5 per cent compared to Syriza at 29 per cent, New Democracy at 26 per cent and the fascist Golden Dawn at 14 per cent.

Clientelism and collapse

Just a quick aside on Pasok’s decline: talking to the workers inside the ERT office in Thessaloniki, I gained a sense of the collapse of Pasok and New Democracy’s system of patronage as a system of power. ERT had been an example of clientelism at its most extreme. The metaphor which the journalists used to explain how it worked was of electric plugs, ‘visma’ in Greek. Politicians ‘plugged in’ their clients, expecting them to be their voice and do their bidding, at the risk of being ‘unplugged’. The circuits of clientelism sustained the system. Under the pressures of cuts and austerity measures this has been visibly collapsing except at what had been the top – indeed Samaras had reinforced the top with 40 extra ‘plug ins’ at a cost, it is said, of over 1 million euros.

The staff I spoke to had contempt for their plugged-in managers. ‘My supervisor knew nothing; he couldn’t even speak English,’ said Natasha, a news reporter. I asked where they were now. ‘They are here, somewhere in the building, but I can’t see them’, she replied. ‘They are the silent ones’ joked George Archontopoulos, who had come into the office to give solidarity. ‘You see, he knows,’ commented Natasha.

You could see, in these exchanges, the evaporation of fear and the creation of common bonds which were already becoming the basis of workers taking control, knowing that their fellow citizens (often themselves facing similar predicaments) are with them, ‘empowering’ them in Panos’ words.

The old clientelist system reproduced itself through fear, obligation and also separation and isolation; each little empire was a world of its own. Only the holders of the plugs knew how the circuit worked. But as the old circuits have crashed under the pressure of the financial crisis and austerity, so new connections are rapidly being improvised outside the clientelist system. These are between the people who actually know how things actually work, whether it be in the media, or water management, health, agriculture or manufacturing.

Broadcasting in defiance

It’s an uncertain process and time is short, but as the crowds remained outside the ERT offices into the early morning of 13 June, willing the journalists to remain on air, it was clear that the ability of journalists and technicians to continue to broadcast in spite of the Samaras attempt to pull the plug on public broadcasting was more than symbolic.

Indeed it is not only the ERT workers who were strategically vital here but also those who actually handle the real plugs and circuits of electricity. The electrical workers union is one of the most militant (and least corrupt) of the Greek unions. Samaras could have simply ordered the cutting off of electricity to ERT offices. The electricians made that impossible.

As I write, events are moving fast. First, Samaras is meeting leaders of Pasok and Dimar. These politicians are finally threatening to leave the government, but the prime minister knows they don’t want elections. He is an aggressive mood. He went on private television over the weekend to defend the closure of ERT. ‘He spoke not like a politician of 2013 but of the 1960, that is like the military, you know,’ says George from the movement against water privatisation. A sign of his aggression is that he successfully asked the Israeli government, which controls one satellite that ERT journalists are using to continue to broadcast, to cut off the service.

A high-risk strategy

Pasok and Dimar are demanding that broadcasting be resumed. Samaras’ compromise – totally unacceptable to the unions and to the majority of Greek people, as opinion polls over the weekend showed, is to re-open on a skeleton staff while proposals are drawn up for a new downsized and, no doubt, part-private broadcasting company to open in the autumn. Second, the Constitutional Court is gathering to consider the legality of the government’s decision to close. UPDATE: The court ruled that ERT should be put back on air, but did not reverse the decision to replace it with a much smaller state broadcaster.

Meanwhile the streets will not be empty. The KKE is planning a demonstration outside the ERT offices on Wednesday. Syriza is calling for a massive demonstration in the centre of Athens the following day.

Samaras’ strategy is high risk. Many believe it is shock tactics, to show the Troika that the government is prepared to be tough (and this makes its attempt to distance itself from the closure farcical). Others suggest wider political goals: ‘Samaras could be just testing what he can get away with,’ says Alex Benos, a professor at the university of Thessalinki university – or, he says, ‘another option is that he is preparing for elections, to get rid of Pasok and Dimar, even to do deals with Golden Dawn.’

Much will be depending on events in the next few days. What is already clear is that the stakes are very high not just for Greece but for the whole of Europe. All those who believe in democracy must everything they can to protest at the anti-democratic actions of the Greek government. We must mobilise all possible sources of support for the refusal of the majority of Greek people to be led one more step towards a return of dictatorship in a new guise.

For more information and resources for support see IFJ, NUJ and Enet

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute. @hilarypepper


Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell

Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths

Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe

How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency

Empire en vogue
Nadine El-Enany examines the imperial pretensions of Britain's post-Brexit foreign affairs and trade strategy

Grenfell Tower residents evicted from hotel with just hours’ notice
An urgent call for support from the Radical Housing Network

Jeremy Corbyn is no longer the leader of the opposition – he has become the People’s Prime Minister
While Theresa May hides away, Corbyn stands with the people in our hours of need, writes Tom Walker

In the aftermath of this disaster, we must fight to restore respect and democracy for council tenants
Glyn Robbins says it's time to put residents, not private firms, back at the centre of decision-making over their housing

After Grenfell: ending the murderous war on our protections
Under cover of 'cutting red tape', the government has been slashing safety standards. It's time for it to stop, writes Christine Berry

Why the Grenfell Tower fire means everything must change
The fire was a man-made atrocity, says Faiza Shaheen – we must redesign our economic system so it can never happen again

Forcing MPs to take an oath of allegiance to the monarchy undermines democracy
As long as being an MP means pledging loyalty to an unelected head of state, our parliamentary system will remain undemocratic, writes Kate Flood

7 reasons why Labour can win the next election
From the rise of Grime for Corbyn to the reduced power of the tabloids, Will Murray looks at the reasons to be optimistic for Labour's chances next time

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 25 June
On June 25th, the fourth of Red Pepper Race Section's Open Editorial Meetings will celebrate the launch of our new black writers' issue - Empire Will Eat Itself.

After two years of attacks on Corbyn supporters, where are the apologies?
In the aftermath of this spectacular election result, some issues in the Labour Party need addressing, argues Seema Chandwani

If Corbyn’s Labour wins, it will be Attlee v Churchill all over again
Jack Witek argues that a Labour victory is no longer unthinkable – and it would mean the biggest shake-up since 1945

On the life of Robin Murray, visionary economist
Hilary Wainwright pays tribute to the life and legacy of Robin Murray, one of the key figures of the New Left whose vision of a modern socialism lies at the heart of the Labour manifesto.

Letter from the US: Dear rest of the world, I’m just as confused as you are
Kate Harveston apologises for the rise of Trump, but promises to make it up to us somehow

The myth of ‘stability’ with Theresa May
Settit Beyene looks at the truth behind the prime minister's favourite soundbite

Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.

Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports

On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for a political organiser
Closing date for applications: postponed, see below

The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections

In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences


70