by Katherine Sarikakis
This article was written in response to the Greek government’s shutdown, under the pretence of austerity, of its public broadcaster ERT in June 2013, and in light of the huge opposition to this attack on democracy.
The drama in the ERT case is that the many domestic and international voices against its forced closure are met with the total absence of dialogue by the Greek government, the silence of the mainstream media in the country and the silent tolerance of certain Euro-elites. But this is not a local, Greek drama. It is a case that concerns the future of the rule of law in Greece and in Europe, social cohesion and public interest, and the quality of life for future generations.
The ERT forced closure has given rise to massive mobilisations of protests, strikes and solidarity projects in Greece, condemning reactions by international organisations in Europe, hundreds of thousands of mentions in the European press and mass media and the reaction of the European Parliament, the Council of Europe and the EBU, to name some. The Greek government remained unmoved in its decision to shut down ERT, not only because it seeks to follow a Thatcherite and Blairite stance towards public opinion, which it has seen steadily moving away from the governing parties, but also because it simply had nowhere to ‘go’. The political architecture of Greece and the role of the EU are not simply questioned by European citizens. There is a clear message of distrust in, and a disconnect from both the political claims of elites and policies and political and economic institutions. While the press in Europe has been repeating a story of the crisis that revolves around politicians and individual agencies, and while the infamously named PIIGS countries served to localise the ‘disease’, citizens were addressed about political trivia and with artificial ‘news’ by major media. Within this six-year period of constant shock, investigative, inquiring, critical journalism re-emerged in cooperative schemata, citizen journalism initiatives but also within ERT. I have listed elsewhere the reasons why the praxis of its closure does not correspond to the arguments offered by the government. What is rather the focus here is how does this matter and for whom?
The defiance of the illegal closure by a core group of ERT employees has seen the reinstatement of transmitters, broadcasting programmes and news almost immediately after the violent shut down and until now under http://www.ertopen.com. By the end of this year, more than six months into the new model of self-governed public service journalism have demonstrated a unique experiment in the history of public service media in Europe. This is the first time in modern European history where a totally liberated medium from both market and state, a truly public broadcasting corporation emerges that opens up to the representation of diffused, and not concentrated and private, interests. Briefly, ERT has continued some of its previous good work and expanded it even more in supporting independent productions and practicing self-governed ways of content production and has given voice to collectivities.
For its international audiences, and not ‘just’ the Greek diaspora, the official ‘voice of Greece’ has been silenced. On the other hand, a globally accessible ERTOpen has emerged. The operation to silence this voice involved the shutting down of radio stations, television channels, archives and online services and the dismantling of orchestras and choirs, the technical disconnection of transmitters and physical evictions performed by the riot police and culminated in the infamous image of handcuffs used to lock the gates at the Athens headquarters.
The symbolic annihilation of the public voice was epitomised in this image through the act of physically arresting, restricting, abusing and silencing the bodies and the means and channels of communication with the public. In ‘straight talk’ what this means is the seizure of assets that are of public ownership, without the agreement of the public, and their sell-out, and through physical violence. The future of the Greek public broadcaster is bleak. At the time of writing there is no concrete commitment to bring NERIT to the level of ERT. The radio stations serving regional parts of Greece are to be passed on to prefectures and local government. This is a typical tactic in the area of cultural and educational policy, to which public media also belong, for the government to rid of responsibility for the decline of public radio with the drying up of funds. This is inevitable not only because local authorities are cash stripped, but also because they are not in a position to make financial decisions themselves, after the Kallikratis Programme came into force. According to this 2010 law, and driven by Memorandum Agreements, the aims of the reorganisation of local authorities and reduction of public service personnel produce by-products of centralisation of decision-making, hence public spending is effectively reduced drastically and managed exclusively by central government. The logical outcome therefore would be the privatisation of public radio stations or their closure.
In Greece, ERT has become a symbol of defiance, resistance and change. It is also symbolic for what is going on in the country: the decision for its closure was taken outside the normal, legal, parliamentary procedures and with the tactic of ‘shock’. It was proclaimed illegal, yet the government refused to obey the country’s Council of the State. This has become largely a new normality of making decisions that lack legitimacy in the eyes of citizens and which lie outside the constitutional legal spectrum. The public humiliation of ERT employees by the government symbolises in one brief speech the public humiliation of the Greek society in the eyes of the international community: through stereotypes, trivialisation and overgeneralising populisms, much like mainstream media in Europe and in the country have talked about ‘Greeks’ and Greece, so has the government and the country’s dominant political elite treated citizens, accusing them for corruption, laziness, incompetence.This terrifying parallelism points to a ‘set to fail’ strategy towards not only ERT but the totality of the country’s public assets and property. Indeed, the forced closure of ERT turned it into the public face for public services, such as health and education; public utilities, such as water, telephony and electricity; public assets, such as gold, oil, diamond and gas reserves, and public land. What is now experienced in Greece as a profound undermining of anything public, from education to raw resources, is found around Europe: the privatisation of education across Europe, with the recent strikes in the UK, also Hungary, the dismantling of the health system as in Spain and the UK, gold-mining and raw material exploitation to the detriment of local populations and the environment in Rosia Montagna, Romania and Skouries, Greece, and the dismantling of- or attempts to- public media in Greece, Spain, Serbia, Hungary, Cyprus, Netherlands, Lithuania. Hence, looking from within the European context towards Greece, ERT’s shut-down has meant both the attempt for symbolic annihilation of public voices, but also the dynamism of the public to defend its ground. It is around this ERT that citizens in the country and internationally ‘congregate’.
What the Diaspora lost is not simply a ‘window’ to the ‘homeland’ and a point of connection to the living culture and language. It is almost impossible to measure the loss, because we have no previous experience, no existing measuring standards to cope with the enormity of what was snapped away from citizens arbitrarily. The only ways in which anything similar can be measured is through the statistics on poverty, unemployment, alienation and social marginalisation that are the immediate effects of the broader and all-encompassing context of crisis. We gained a free ERT though the Internet and this lesson in civic education will stay with younger generations –hopefully. The Diaspora, forced, by choice, recent and new or already historical, can carry this civic lesson in solidarity and perseverance and ‘give back’ by supporting this cause. It can resist symbolic annihilation.
Katherine Sarikakis is Professor of Media Governance, Media Industries and Media Organisation at the University of Vienna.
Republished with permission and thanks from the author’s blog