Muffling of a Voice Provokes an Outcry in Greece
By Liz Alderman and Rachel Donadio, NY Times, June 19, 2013
ATHENS—The poignant image made its way around the world: A blond violinist, tears streaming down her face as she played Elgar in a studio orchestra of Greece’s state broadcaster to protest Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’s unilateral decision last week to shut the broadcaster down and fire its 2,600 employees.
A bit melodramatic, lagging in parts, but full of feeling, the performance captured something in Greece. It became the soundtrack to a country falling apart, a dirge for a social order dissolving with each new quarter of recession, the sound of a loss of faith in the ability of Greece’s leaders, and Europe’s, to set things right.
The video—and the live-streaming of programming online, produced by employees still showing up to work, unpaid and occupying headquarters illegally—has elicited immense solidarity with a broadcaster that Greeks have traditionally seen as mismanaged and overstuffed with patronage hires.
For a government intent on projecting an image that it is in control, shutting down the Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation, known as ERT, was a bold gamble. Mr. Samaras wanted to show Greece’s troika of international lenders that he was able to meet their demands to fire public-sector workers—something that in four years of financial crisis and rapidly shrinking budgets Greece had not managed to do.
But in a crisis based in large part on perception, turning off the public broadcaster—one of the only broadcast news sources not owned by Greek business magnates—revealed another side of the prime minister, one his critics say is increasingly autocratic and stubborn, willing to infringe on press freedom and risk a political crisis to meet the demands of Greece’s creditors.
Over the years, successive governments have brought in waves of the party faithful to staff ERT. No one was fired, so no one is denying that the ranks were filled with patronage and political hires—earning the ire of most Greeks.
While the ERT staff can be seen as lean compared with other state broadcasters in Europe, it is widely regarded in Greece as a spendthrift. Before the financial crisis hit in 2009, it had about 100 on-air presenters earning around $650,000 a year, according to a former ERT manager. The violinist in the video plays in one of the network’s three orchestras.
Mr. Samaras has called ERT a costly bastion of favoritism, yet his critics note that much of the patronage came from his own New Democracy Party and the other members of the governing coalition.
Giorgos Kogiannis, a former head of news at ERT, accused the government of hypocrisy for closing ERT down to cut costs, claiming that the three-party government formed last June immediately appointed its own people to key posts there and tripled the number of advisers to the new chief executive.
"As soon as they came to government, they started the political appointments at ERT," Mr. Kogiannis said. "They put 20 advisers in the C.E.O.’s office, compared to six before." He added that several positions were given to people with close ties to the government spokesman, Simos Kedikoglou, and other top government officials.
ERT’s 2,600 employees, meanwhile, are fighting to save their jobs and, understandably, feel like pawns in some larger battle.
On Tuesday afternoon, Greek folk music blared from 10-foot speakers and banners rippled across the building’s facade, railing against what workers called the “sudden death” of the decades-old institution. “Not for sale!” read one. “Unemployment, poverty and now the loss of culture—this is the price for the euro,” read another.
Inside, a palpable bitterness hung in the air. Journalists hovered over computers, typing out news bulletins that few would see. Television screens displayed live broadcasts and reruns from ERT stations, all surreptitiously transmitted through alternate satellite feeds after the government shut electricity to the broadcaster’s antennas.
"We don’t consider this shutdown to be valid," said Yannis Darras, a presenter on a current affairs show and a leader of the movement to continue occupying the building and maintain regular programming. "We will remain here as long as we can to keep broadcasting and do our job."
For many Greeks, the closing of the broadcaster—swiftly, overnight—raised fears about what else the government might have in store. As she worked in a stationery store in Athens on a street that once bustled with business but that is now lined with empty storefronts and “For Rent” signs, Eleni Rallaki, 41, said the shutdown worried her.
"If ERT can close down, you can expect anything," she said.