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Protesters 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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.