Deadlock over broadcast reform

The Greek government closed down the public broadcaster without prior notice or consultation with staff on 11 June 2013. The government used exceptional constitutional powers to stop the Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation’s radio and television transmissions, dismissing its 2,656 employees and revealing plans for a new network employing around 2,000 staff. Amidst widespread protests, staff continue to broadcast on other frequencies and the internet.

Sudden closure of public broadcaster

Greece’s public radio and television broadcasting service is the Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation (ΕRΤ). ERT operates 3 television channels and 28 radio stations throughout Greece, as well as 2 music ensembles and a radio-television magazine. ERT was one of the founding members of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU).

Without prior notice, a government spokesperson announced on 11 June 2013 that by midnight of the same day, ERT would be closed permanently. All of its employees would be dismissed and a new broadcaster would be created in its place.

Shortly before midnight, ERT signal transmitters throughout Greece went down during a live broadcast and television screens went blank as all programmes were pulled off the air.

Act of legislative content

Greece’s constitution provides for the adoption of decisions signed exclusively by a minister only in very exceptional and severe circumstances. This procedure prevents discussion taking place in parliament and any possibility for reaction and dialogue.

The government’s spokesperson said on 12 June, the day after the transmitters were shut down, that this procedure would be used for the adoption of an act of legislative content under which ERT would cease to operate.

The government introduced a draft law to parliament on 5 July 2013 providing for the dismissal of all 2,656 ERT employees, and establishing the new public broadcasting organisation, which will operate under the name New Hellenic Radio Internet and Television (NERIT SA).

This will be a totally new entity, replacing ERT. The government has also announced that recruitment would begin as soon as possible for the first 589 jobs of the 2,000 expected to become available.

NERIT SA is to be supervised by the state and will enjoy administrative and financial independence. It will broadcast throughout Greece, provide a wider service for Greek emigrants and manage local networks. The new broadcaster is expected to begin operating in September, under a brand new profile and structure, and with a workforce approximately three-quarters the size of ERT’s. The dismissed employees will receive compensation, and those who wish to may apply for the new posts being created at NERIT SA.

In the meantime, viewers and listeners will not have to pay the broadcasting service fee until the new organisation begins to operate.

Motivation for broadcasting reform

ERT’s network has long been plagued by an image of being too closely allied with government officials and being unduly influenced by political patronage. It has also been seen by some as wasteful and overstaffed. An attempt in 2011 to close down 1 of ERT’s 3 TV stations, close its listings magazine and merge its 19 radio stations into 1 was fiercely resisted by both staff and politicians.

The government’s official stance is that its interruption of ERT’s operation is part of its determination to ‘rehabilitate’ the public radio and television operator. The government has said that it could not modernise while ERT was still operating because every attempt to introduce change had been met with fierce resistance from the broadcasting unions.

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras said his decision was also symbolic. Declaring that the old fashioned, outworn and anachronistic has been set aside and replaced with the modern, operational and competitive, he added that ERT’s closure was proof that ‘the current government does have the required political will’.

The plan is that the new broadcaster will have the same structure as the big foreign networks, such as the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the Italian Radio and Television Corporation (RAI) and German Television (ΖDF), all of which operate independently of political influence despite being state-owned and supervised.

Disagreement within government

However, the Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) and Democratic Left (DIMAR), the other two political parties that form the coalition government together with the Prime Minister’s New Democracy party, strongly opposed his unilateral decision, generating a round of discussions between the three coalition parties.

After ERT ceased operations, its staff asked the Council of State, the highest court in Greece, to rule on the closure of the broadcasting network. It ordered the reopening of ERT and temporarily suspended the ministerial decision, although only until the new radio and television services operator is established. It is expected to be able to start transmissions in September 2013.

The discussions between the three coalition parties failed to find a common solution. DIMAR withdrew from the government on 21 June 2013, causing a reshuffle. The two remaining coalition parties between them have a slender majority of 153 seats in the 300-member Greek parliament.

The opposition party, the Radical Left Alliance (SYRIZA), has said that the closure of ERT is unacceptable and cynical, violates the constitution and parliamentary rules of procedure, and breaches the people’s right to be informed. Moreover, thousands of employees have lost their jobs without receiving notice, which violates European directives on collective redundancy procedures, international rules and other laws.

No solution reached yet

After the government reshuffle, ERT’s case was taken on by a new deputy minister, Pantelis Kapsis, who held consultations with employees. Three meetings had taken place by 2 July, and on 10 July the public broadcaster began to operate in privately owned facilities, broadcasting only films and documentaries, rather than the scheduled programmes. To resume the full schedule of the public television network, many problems will need to be overcome for which remedies have yet to be found.

However, ERT staff occupied the network’s headquarters on 10 June and have been broadcasting the full information and entertainment television schedule on a daily basis. This is being transmitted via satellite, using EBU equipment, and can be viewed on other transmission frequencies and on a live internet stream provided by the EBU.

Widespread opposition

A wave of protests throughout Greece greeted the closure of ERT. Citizens gathered outside the ERT headquarters in an effort to show solidarity, while the Journalists’ Union of the Athens Daily Newspapers (ESIEA), the General Confederation of Greek Workers (GSEE) and the Civil Servants’ Confederation (ADEDY) called a 24-hour strike.

ESIEA announced strikes across all media and called for gatherings to strengthen protests against what it described as ‘the unprecedented “closure”, in a democratic country, of the public radio and television network under a decide-and-order method – that is, without the approval of parliament’.

The EBU drafted a letter asking the Prime Minister to reverse the decision, saying that the closure was unprecedented in the history of broadcasting in Europe and violated European treaties. The letter added that the ‘existence of public service media and their independence from government lie at the heart of democratic societies.’

The Federation of Greek Broadcasting Unions (POSPERT) represents many of the sacked ERT workers. The federation said that it objected to the way the government had decided to deal with broadcasting reform rather than to reform itself. Network operation should have continued while change was underway, and in cooperation with the employees.

The GSEE described the act of legislative content as antidemocratic, saying in its statement that:

ERT belongs to the Greek people and is subject to the general principles of social services and public discourse, promoting the democratic principles of equal access opportunities, pluralism and information; it is the only independent and public voice and it must remain public, independent, free from the influence of political parties and accountable to the Greek tax-payers only.

The GSEE also suggested that the ERT closure should be immediately discussed in parliament. It said ERT’s closure ‘raises direct concerns related to the violation of the constitution and the functioning of the institutions, affecting other state companies as well, their property, and their future’.

GSEE and ADEDY called a 24-hour general strike on 13 June 2013, and organised a rally of thousands of employees outside ERT’s headquarters. The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) also expressed its opposition to ERT’s closure.

In a letter addressed to the Prime Minister, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) also expressed disappointment and surprise at the shutting down of the state broadcaster.

So far, the efforts of the former ERT employees to fight the closure has had widespread support and since 11 June, the ERT headquarters have been crowded with people who have come to see the arts and cultural events now being held there daily.

Commentary

The termination of ERT caused a major crisis in the coalition government. The disruption of ERT’s operation has been condemned as unprecedented and undemocratic by opposition parties and trade unions.

There are fears that the government’s action paves the way for similar unilateral decisions, and overall it seems that the way this issue has been handled has generated more problems rather than resolving existing ones.

Concerns have also been raised about ignored court rulings, the repeated use of acts of legislative content and the violation of collective dismissal law.

The government remains in dispute with ERT’s employees and their unions. Staff continue to broadcast, insisting that this is the only way to implement in full the Council of State’s decision that ERT should carry on operating while the new broadcaster is set up.

The situation remains deadlocked and no one knows how the case will finally be resolved.

Penny Georgiadou, Labour Institute of Greek General Confederation of Labour (INE GSEE)

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