Ex-Workers Have Turned the Greek BBC into a Pirate Radio Station

ERT's fired employees are continuing to show that they won't be silenced.

The Athens Polytechnic school

Every November the 17th, Greece gathers to pay tribute to those who lost their lives in the 1973 student uprising against the country's military dictatorship. The commemoration includes opening the Athens Polytechnic school – where the uprising began – for three days, allowing the public to lay flowers in remembrance of the 20 people who lost their lives, and ends with a demonstration each year.  

Last Saturday night, some 20,000 people marched from the Polytechnic to the city's US embassy to both commemorate the students' battle against the CIA-backed junta of the 70s and to link it to today's struggles against austerity and state oppression.    

This year's tributes included a solidarity march by Athens' immigrant community, attended by the brothers of Shehzad Luqman, a 27-year-old Pakistani migrant who was stabbed to death by Golden Dawn supporters last winter. And, for the first time, the LGBT community marched publicly alongside those groups whose members attend the protest every year: civilians exiled and tortured by the military junta, leftist, communist and anarchist groups and a whole raft of student associations.

Also demonstrating were the ex-employees of Greece's former public broadcaster, ERT, who were evicted from their former workplace and company headquarters last week after squatting there for five months. During their occupation, the ERT workers had continued broadcasting radio and TV shows via the internet and a satellite channel provided by the European Broadcasting Association (EBU). This year, they brought their radio transmitters inside the Polytechnic to relay shows from within the school.

Nikos Tsimpidas broadcasting on ERT from inside the Athens Polytechnic

During the march, supporters of the left-wing opposition party SYRIZA chanted, "In all of Europe, in every square, the people are struggling for the restoration of democracy." I watched on with Nikos Tsimpidas, the final journalist to be escorted out of the ERT building by riot police last week.

"More than 1.5 million people listened to our programme from [inside] the polytechnic school [this weekend]," Nikos told me as we approached the demo. I mentioned that the broadcast had parallels with the temporary radio station set up by polytechnic students on the 17th of November, 1973. That night, an army tank knocked down the school's gates and armed policemen swarmed the institution.

An ERT sign near the polytechnic gates that reads: "ERT open. Shut down the government."

"There is certainly an analogy there," Nikos said, "but to us the most important thing was that we had our chance to actually participate in the celebration and host good conversations on the radio. Being representatives of the official public broadcaster over the previous years, we were obliged to cover events in a neutral and distant manner."

A couple of hours earlier, Nikos and I had left the ERT's makeshift studio inside the polytechnic with two Turks, who were protesting against the imprisonment of political activists in their country. They had given an interview about Bulut Yayla – the activist who was kidnapped in Athens' Exarcheia neighbourhood and handed over to the Turkish authorities for detention – and the present condition of human rights in Turkey.

The makeshift ERT studio inside the Athens Polytechnic

Inside, Aris, a 55-year-old soundman who'd set up the studio, had told me about the preparations. "Students and professors were enthused to have us inside," he said, "but the dean of the school and the governing council were hesitant, due to a strict police threat not to host us – unless they wanted to risk a police operation inside the institution."

However, the event's organising committee – encouraged by the students' enthusiasm – decided to defy police orders and give ERT the space they needed to get on air. "We're like a moving theatre now," said Aris. "We show up here and there, but we're not giving up."

Following their eviction from the former ERT headquarters, the ex-employees have started to transmit whenever and from wherever they can. Last Friday, they organised live TV coverage of a concert inside the polytechnic; on Sunday, they transmitted a two-hour radio show from a city in Crete; every night they broadcast a TV show from the city of Salonica. And the general consensus seems to be that those still involved will continue to organise broadcasts like these as often as possible.   

Police dragging protesters to the ground in Athens

Despite police threats against the institution and heavy state surveillance – more than 6,000 riot police were deployed and authorities monitored proceedings by helicopter, making the whole atmosphere very tense – the demo ended peacefully for most people.

However, as is often the case with protests in Athens, things didn't stay peaceful for long. I returned to Exarcheia later on Saturday night to discover that police on motorbikes had invaded the demo, broken the windows of a coffee shop, dragged people outside for no apparent reason and sent at least three civilians to hospital with their heads cracked open. The police claim that a minor incident had occurred after a group of protesters began throwing stones at them, but most of the people I spoke to were adamant the police had started the trouble. "They dragged people who were just having coffee, and when I started taking notes of the names of the detained, they threw me down and took my notepad," said one woman.

The legal team representing the demo also accused the police of unjustified violence against young Athenians. "A 23-year-old student was beaten up and taken to police headquarters, where his money was stolen, only to end up in hospital for absolutely no reason," said one of the team's lawyers. "His only crime was that he was in Exarcheia at the time."

According to an official police press release, 230 people were taken to police departments as part of preventive control methods, and 19 were arrested for minor offences.

While the future of the ERT is precarious, it's clear that it and other independent Greek media sources are needed now more than ever. The Greek government recently set up a new state broadcaster, and it's unlikely that they're going to watch the state and the police with much scrutiny.

Follow Matthaios on Twitter: @tsimitakis

More on the ERT:

After Five Months of Occupation, Greek Riot Police Finally Shut Down the ERT

The Greek Government Tried and Failed to Close Their BBC