"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.

Follow Yiannis on twitter @yiannisbab

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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

What's happened to the German left?

For a fourth successive election, the left seems to be failing to challenge the status quo.

When Germany goes to the polls this weekend, Angela Merkel is expected to win a fourth term in office. Merkel has maintained her commanding lead in the polls on 37 per cent, while her closest competitor, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has been relegated to, at best, a possible coalition partner. 

The expectation that the status quo will continue has left commentators and politicians of all stripes asking: what has happened to the German left?

Lagging behind in the polls, with just 20 per cent of the country's voting intention, Martin Schulz’s SPD has slumped to its lowest level this year only days before the vote, according to the latest poll by Infratest dimap for ARD television.  

Even the prospect of a left-wing alternative to a Merkel-led coalition appears to have become unpalatable to the electorate. An alliance between the SPD, die Grünen (the Greens) and the socialist party die Linke (the Left) would not reach the threshold needed to form a government.

One explanation for the German left's lack of impact is the success Merkel has had in stifling her opposition by moving closer to the centre ground. Over the last four years, she has ruled a grand coalition known as GroKo (Große Koalition) with the centre-left SPD, leaving many of its voters believing their party was no longer any different to the chancellor's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Rolf Henning, 34, has been a member of the SPD since 2004. Campaigning in Pankow, a diverse area of eastern Berlin which has traditionally voted on the left, he told the New Statesman that although the coalition had enabled the SPD to push its social agenda, the party did not receive any credit for it.  

“It is now hard to motivate people to vote for the SPD because people think it will not make any difference. If we were to enter a coalition again with Merkel and the CDU then our support base will drain even further,” he said.  

Another grand coalition between the CDU and the SPD is very much on the cards, as Merkel is unlikely to win an outright majority. But while the arrangement has seemingly worked out well for the chancellor, its benefits for the SPD seem rather less certain.

“The political strength of the left is an illusion," says Gero Neugebauer, a political analyst and a former senior researcher at the Freie Universität Berlin, "The SPD did a good job in the coalition to push issues of social policy and family policies, but Ms Merkel took the credit for a lot of it. People saw the car and the chauffer rather than paying attention to the engine."

In 2015, under pressure from the SPD, the Merkel administration introduced a minimum wage in Germany, a benchmark for many in the party which yet did little to gloss over the SPD’s image. On the contrary, Merkel’s election campaign sought to win over disillusioned SPD voters.

According to Neugebauer, the left-wing parties have failed to work together to form a real alternative coalition to the Merkel administration. He warns that Germany’s left-wing camp has become “an illusion” with “virtual power”.

For a short-lived moment the election of Martin Schulz, the former president of the EU Parliament, to head the SPD, brought hope to the idea of a left-wing coalition. 

Stefan Liebich, a member of parliament for die Linke representing the Pankow district, says the SPD initially rose in the polls because people thought there could be an alternative coalition to Merkel. "But then the SPD made a lot of mistakes and they were wrongly told they would lose support if they worked with us," he adds.

"Now nobody believes a left-wing coalition could ever happen because the SPD is so low in the polls.” 

Before Schulz took over the SPD, few believed that after four years in the coalition government the party had a good chance in the upcoming election. “But Schulz arrived and said ‘I will be chancellor’ and it was like a phoenix rising from the ashes,” says Neugebauer.

Schulz revived the social-democratic tradition and spoke about social justice, but the delay of his election programme left many wondering whether he would be able to walk the walk – and his popularity started to fall.

“Compared to Merkel, he became less credible and less trustworthy,” says Neugebauer.  

The SPD are, of course, not the only left-wing party running. Back in Pankow, Caroline, a lawyer and a long-time SPD voter said she was considering voting for the more left-wing die Linke because she did not want to give her ballot to Schulz.

“There is something about him, he is not straightforward and he is too much like the CDU," she continues. "As the head of the EU Parliament, Schulz was good but I don’t think he has what it takes to tackle issues in Germany."

For Ulrike Queissner, also a Pankow resident, the SPD’s lurch to the centre convinced her to vote for die Linke: “The SPD has become mainstream and part of the establishment. It has become too close to the CDU and has no strong position anymore.”

Stable at about 8 per cent in the polls, die Linke is still trailing the extreme-right Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD), which is anticipated to win between 8 and 11 per cent of votes. This means it would enter the German parliament, the Bundestag, for the first time, becoming its third biggest party.

At the core of die Linke’s manifesto is the redistribution of wealth, a peaceful foreign policy and measures to stamp out the remaining social rift between east and west Germany.  

The party strives to challenge Merkel’s feel-good slogans by putting the spotlight on the discrepancies between rich and poor, and east and west.

 “When we look around to Portugal, Spain, Italy, and maybe even to the UK, we seem happy," says Liebich. "We don’t have an exit [from the EU] debate or a high unemployment rate. And yet, there is a part of Germany that sees that things are not going so well."

And for some of die Linke’s eastern electorate, immigration is at the top of the list of grievances, putting pressure on a party which has always defended an open door-policy – something Liebich acknowledges.

“In Berlin a majority of voters say they are open to people who need help, but in the eastern states, where we have a high unemployment rate and a lot of people who are not used to living with people of other cultures, there is a lot of anger."

That will add to concerns that large numbers of silent AfD supporters could create a surprise in the traditionally left-wing area of east Germany, where the far-right party is capitalising on the anti-immigration sentiment. The left seems to be squeezed between Merkel’s move to the centre ground and the AfD’s growing populist threat.

For Neugebauer the prospect of AfD members in parliament should force left-wing parties to sharpen their political lines, and form a consensus bloc against the rising extreme-right. The silver lining lies in the hope that all three left-wing parties – die Linke, die Grünen and die SPD – find themselves together in the opposition.

“Then, there would be an opportunity to start a conversation about what the parties have in common and start working together," he says. "It would be a chance for the German left to find itself again and create a vision for co-operation.” 

And yet, commentators still anticipate that at least some part of the left will end up working with Merkel, either through a grand coalition with the SPD or a three-way “Jamaica coalition”, with the pro-business FDP and the Greens. For the German left the time for cooperation, and a shot at taking charge of Germany's future, may still be some years away.