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"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.

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

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

Tags:Greece