Radical Reform: Greek Public Broadcaster Goes Underground

By and Georgios Christidis in Athens

Photo Gallery: Greece's Search for a New Public Broadcaster Photos

Greek public television channel ERT may have been shut down, but rather than disappear, the station has gone underground. Meanwhile, the government of Antonis Samaras is trying to build up a new broadcaster, free of the patronage that plagued the old.

The search for Greece's public broadcaster of the future is a complicated one. Initial clues lead one to the Athens suburb of Paiania, where a studio that used to belong to the private station Mega is located. Is this the origin of the films that Greeks have recently been able to watch on the public broadcaster ERT? Studio employees say that those responsible have already left, on their way to the Greek Press Ministry. There, however, one is told that there is no knowledge of any studio. "Nobody here can tell you anything," says a visibly anxious employee.

Finding the old state television station is much easier. The ERT building in downtown Athens, which already stands out, is now covered with posters from employees who have been essentially occupying their employer for more than a month. They refuse to accept that Prime Minister Antonis Samaras unilaterally shut down ERT as a particularly egregious example of public waste. "I turned on my television at home," says a 32-year-old technician, "and I suddenly heard that as of midnight I would no longer have a job."

What, then, does the ERT closure represent? Is it an example of decisive action taken in a country that has become notorious for postponing needed reforms? Or is it a particularly horrific example of the arbitrariness of the Greek state?

Host Fanis Papathanasiou is surprisingly calm when speaking about the loss of his job and those of roughly 2,700 colleagues as he sits in the ERT news studio. As a former war correspondent in Iraq and Afghanistan, the 43-year-old has seen worse. Still, Papathanasiou says, the new working conditions he now faces are challenging. The satellite connection no longer works and they likewise have been cut off from news agencies like Reuters. Not even the telephone system works anymore. "This is my private phone," Papathanasiou, who also once served as the ERT correspondent in New York, says pointing at his mobile device. "We have huge problems."

On the Web

But Papathanasiou and his co-workers are still going nonetheless, hoping that somehow they will be able to avoid closure after all. In the process, ERT has essentially become a private broadcaster that can be reached almost exclusively by Internet.

Still, Papathanasiou believes that ERT, which suffered from plunging ratings prior to its closure, has now become more popular. "We are now independent and show a different view," he says. Decisions on what stories they are going to pursue are made by committee. During the recent visit to Athens by German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, for example, they reported on the impending aid shortfall. "That wasn't mentioned on the private channels," Papathanasiou says.

Despite the widespread resistance to the closure, the Greek government has shown no indication that it might reverse its decision. In the coming months, Athens plans to build a completely new state broadcaster from the ground up. Just on Monday, 600 temporary positions were announced.

Indeed, it is those job announcements that help to clear up the mystery as to where the underground ERT is coming from. The new hires are to be made to bridge the gap between now and when the new public broadcaster is ready to go on air. In other words, they are to do what Papathanasiou and his colleagues are doing now. And on Sunday, Pantelis Kapsis, the deputy minister responsible for public broadcasting, told Greek parliament that the ERT broadcasts are in fact originating from his ministry. He says that secrecy was necessary because "some union members wanted to shut us down and we wanted to prevent that from happening."

Free from Political Patronage

Kapsis himself was once one of Greece's most accomplished journalists. Now, however, he has been tasked with establishing the country's new public television station -- one which is to cost less, employ fewer people and be free from the political patronage that long plagued ERT. "The connection between government and journalists will be severed," Kapsis promises.

How do Greece's conservatives and Socialist hope to put an end to the decades of sleaze that they themselves promulgated, though? "That's why I was hired," says Kapsis, who has no shortage of self-confidence. The deputy minister promises that he will accept no attempts at outside influence and plans to guarantee the new broadcaster's independence by way of a supervisory board. He is using the BBC as a model.

Former ERT employees are welcome to apply for the new jobs. But journalist Papathanasiou wants to explore other options first, saying that he has little faith in the reform effort. "I don't think that anything will change," he says.

His skepticism is justified. The lack of transparency and cronyism that has long plagued the Greek media landscape will not come to an end with the launch of the new public broadcaster. Indeed, many of the country's private stations have never actually received official broadcasting rights. "Most of them should have their licenses revoked," Kapsis says, "but most of them support local parliamentarians."

Planning to Step Down

But ERT employees are also partially to blame for the waste that led to the station's closure. In 2011, then government spokesman Elias Mossialos presented a relatively harmless reform plan calling for one of three television channels to be shut down and for the 19 radio stations to be merged into one. Mossialos also wanted to shut down Radiotileorasi, a state-funded listings magazine.

The plan was bitterly opposed by the unions, to the point that ERT went off the air for days at a time due to strikes. Antonis Samaras, part of the conservative opposition at the time, was among those against the undertaking.

Samaras has long-since come to be known as a flip-flopper -- and now he will have to prove that he won't allow the new broadcaster to fall into the old patterns of corruption and nepotism. So far, the new station would seem to be off to a good start. Kapsis, in charge of keeping the broadcaster streamlined, only has six employees -- and he himself says he plans to step down "within a year."

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