"A direct blow to democracy": the switch-off of Greece's state broadcaster

After the closure of ERT, the country's political future hangs in the balance, writes Yiannis Baboulias.

In a move that left the country speechless, the Greek government announced the closing of the state television and radio network ERT (the Greek equivalent of the BBC) yesterday. With an "emergency law" that hadn't previously been discussed or announced, and in a fashion that suits dictatorial regimes more than it does democratic states, the closure was announced for midnight last night.

ERT is to pass under the direct control of the Finance Ministry and its 2,500 employees are to be fired in an effort to "reform" the state broadcaster. The government has labelled the station a "money-wasting and overstaffed mess", and promises to reopen it in September with reduced staff and a different philosophy in its management. But who trusts the current government, given its poor track-record when it comes to press freedom, and its notoriously nepotistic practices?

Riot police were dispatched to take down the transmitters and switch off all possible links to the outside world from the ERT building in the Athens suburbs, after staff announced they would occupy it and continue broadcasting. Thousands of people gathered outside in support, but no clashes took place with the police that had soon surrounded the building. One by one, transmitters were shut down in a dramatic countdown broadcast through the station's web TV, the last gateway of communication (still running at the moment). "This is a direct blow to democracy," the presenters announced. "We're not going anywhere."

ERT, financed by a licence fee Greeks pay through their electricity bills, is home to an invaluable digital archive that is now to be sold off, broadcasts investigative journalism shows unlikely to be carried by Greece's infamously biased private stations and plays host to the BBC World Service, Deutsche Welle and RIK among others.

The station has been running a surplus budget for the past four years. So it comes as a surprise when the government's spokesman Simos Kedikoglou (already sued for libel by the opposition SYRIZA MP N Diamantopoulos for altering a video to make him appear in support of terrorists) declares the station "a haven of waste". He said: "ERT is a typical example of unique lack of transparency and incredible waste. And that ends today."

So what is the government hoping to achieve with an authoritarian move that has brought scrutiny from major European media organisations, as well as the European Commision?

ERT has long been used by government ministers and MPs as a way to take care of their own. Most recently, the case of Anthi Salagkoudi made it to the pages of the German news magazine Der Speigel as a striking case of nepotism, in which the daughter of the former minister George Salagkoudis was hired as a presenter with a salary of €3,500, only for the channel to find out she wasn’t suitable for the position. Despite that "disadvantage", Salagkoudi was moved around the channel until a suitable job was found for her.

That is unfortunately a low-level entry in the list. Consultants and managers costing several thousand euros a month have found places at ERT, influencing the station's voice in favour of the government - the case of the fired presenters Kostas Arvanitis and Marilena Kasimi particularly sticking out. After criticising the government, their show was cut by the New Democracy-appointed manager Emilios Litasos (more on the case here). Why would anyone trust the very people that created the mess in the first place to "reform" ERT?

The most likely answer lies elsewhere. Recent government spin has claimed that Greece has seen off the worst of the economic crisis, but after a series of failed deals to privatise state assets, the Greek prime minister Antonis Samaras is desperate to show resolve and fire public employees to meet the austerity conditions imposed by the Troika. His latest move threatens to unravel, however, since it has brought his party, New Democracy, into direct conflict with its junior coalition partners PASOK and Dimar, with PASOK threatening to walk away if the government doesn't back down, and a DIMAR MP tweeting a cryptic: "I think we're close to the end".

Insiders have been circulating rumours for months, suggesting Samaras is not happy with the status quo as his nominally centre-left partners stop him from moving the agenda even further to the right. The DIMAR Justice Minister P Roupakiotis, for instance, often clashes with New Democracy Citizen Protection minister N Dendias over proposed bills he deems "unacceptable". Samaras is said to have approached the far-right party LAOS (participants in the 2012 Papadimos coalition government) and members of the Independent Greeks, possibly in a move to unite a grand coalition of the right. If his partnership with PASOK and DIMAR breaks, he might look even further to his right. The neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn was the only other elected party to support the bill, which raises fears as to where this coupling is headed.

If the government fails this test - and it looks likely to - Greece may be heading to the polls soon. That prospect will certainly find the country's European partners in disarray. A SYRIZA surge under the current conditions would put an end to the positive spin, sending a bad message to German voters who will be heading to the polls this September. But it is imperative we talk about why Europe still puts up with a government that has clearly lost its marbles when it comes to freedom of speech. ERT's rich history means ordinary people won't give it up easily, and its staff, finally liberated after receiving the final blow from a government that's been gunning for them every step of the way, are broadcasting vitriolic comments against New Democracy, naming names and scandals that previously they had been afraid to.

The next few weeks look likely to prove crucial for Greece's future.

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A man walks past wall art showing a television test pattern and reading "no signal" in central Athens. Photograph: Getty Images

Yiannis Baboulias is a Greek investigative journalist. His work on politics, economics and Greece, appears in the New Statesman, Vice UK and others.

Azaz, on Syria's northern border with Turkey. Photo: Getty
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Syria's broken people: how Assad destroyed a nation

 Whoever leads the country after this conflict comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins, but a ravaged people, too. 

For a moment, the residents of al-Fu’ah and Kafriya dreamed of a better future. After living under siege for more than two years, civilians from these two Shia villages in the rebel-held Idlib province of north-western Syria were finally allowed to leave earlier this month.

Buses arrived to evacuate them to regime-held areas in Aleppo province, snaking through hostile territory. They eventually stopped at an agreed crossover point, between regime- and rebel-held areas in the Rashideen district of western Aleppo.

These journeys are long: it can take hours, sometimes days, to travel just a few miles. Checkpoints, angry negotiations and deep distrust between opposing factions (even when they are apparently on the same side) ensure that such transfers are never as efficient as they should be.

As families waited at the Rashideen checkpoint, with some disembarking to stretch their legs or to let their children play outside, a powerful car bomb exploded. More than 126 civilians were killed in the blast – the deadliest attack of its kind in more than a year.

The fatalities included 60 children. The act was made all the more unconscionable by the way that they were deliberately targeted. A truck ostensibly providing humanitarian relief parked beside the buses and began distributing sweets and ice cream, causing the children to swarm towards it. Then  it exploded.

One of the most striking features of this conflict is its seemingly endless capacity to spiral into greater depravity. Both sides have butchered and brutalised one another in a fashion that would make the Marquis de Sade recoil. At times, it can seem as if each side is competing with the other to adopt more sadistic and cruel methods. When they do, it is ordinary civilians who invariably pay the biggest price.

Even children have not been spared from the privations of this vicious war, as the events in Rashideen demonstrate. Last August, it was the image of Omran Daqneesh, the stunned and bloodied five-year-old boy in the back of an ambulance, which epitomised the suffering of another besieged group: the mainly Sunni residents of eastern Aleppo, encircled by government forces.

To characterise the Syrian conflict as wholly sectarian is reductionist, but factional infighting has become one of its defining elements. The imprimatur of sectarianism is leaving indelible marks across the Levant, tearing the region apart.

Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s embattled president, set the tone for this when the uprising first began in 2011. To undermine the protest movement, he characterised the opposition as Sunni extremists who were driven by sectarian hatred (Assad is from the minority Alawite community; a heterodox Shia sect).

His unaccountable loyalist militia, the shabiha (“ghosts”), brutalised the opposition not just physically but also with sectarian slurs, introducing a caustic and corrosive mood to the uprising. This pathology has continued to metastasise ever since.

The current policy of displacing besieged residents has further enhanced the sectarian aspects of this war. For years, the Syrian regime has used siege warfare to bring rebel areas under control. Once the inhabitants have been worn down, the government moves them to rebel-held areas, away from its sphere of control. In this way, President Assad has consolidated control over important and strategic areas closer to home while edging disloyal elements further away.

Occasionally, new residents are brought in to repopulate evacuated areas, typically from minorities more inclined to support the government. What is taking place is a slow demographic recalibration, in which errant Sunnis are moved to the periphery and loyalist minorities are moved closer to the core.

These transfers are now so common in Syria that a dedicated fleet of green buses is used in the process, and has become an iconic image of this conflict. The buses catch the eye and are used for moving besieged people. Their sanctity is not to be violated. In a conflict that has ignored almost every norm, this one had lasted – albeit with occasional violations – until the assault in Rashideen.

There are moments when important leaders appear to transcend the divide. Moqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi Shia cleric who rose to prominence after leading a militia against British troops in Basra after the 2003 invasion, recently called for Bashar al-Assad to step aside.

In doing so, Sadr became one of only a few prominent Shia leaders to publicly acknowledge Assad’s bloodshed. His comments came after the chemical weapons attack in Idlib earlier this month, which claimed more than 80 lives.

Statements such as Sadr’s have huge symbolic value, but are easily forgotten in the aftermath of the next atrocity. Speaking to the American broadcaster NBC last October, General David Petraeus summed up the mood of many military planners in Washington when he concluded that Syria may have passed the point of no return. “Syria may not be able to be put back together,” he said. “Humpty Dumpty has fallen and again I’m not sure you can piece it back together.”

His comments came even before the most tumultuous events of the past six months, which have included the fall of Aleppo, the emergence of a more empowered jihadist coalition (composed principally of al-Qaeda members), the use of chemical weapons and now the Rashideen bus bombing.

Petraeus’s remarks were prescient. As a result of the cycle of bitter vengeance and retribution, often fuelled by deep sectarian suspicion, the Syrian Civil War will continue its descent into chaos. When Assad first unleashed the shabiha to quash the protest movement, the militia warned the opposition: “Assad, or we burn the country.”

In this respect, at least, it has kept its word. Whoever leads the country after this conflict finally comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins but a ravaged people, too. 

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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