I hung out in the occupied ERT building with defiant former employees.
Protesters gathering outside the ERT building in Athens.
On Tuesday, it was announced that ERT – the Greek equivalent of the BBC – would be closed down by Antonis Samaras' coalition government after 87 years of operation, the latest in a line of austerity measures after the country was bailed out in 2010. The "sudden death" of the national public broadcaster – which was largely state-funded, with Greek households paying a fee through their electricity bills – took with it some 2,600 jobs; journalists, technicians, artists – everyone it usually takes to run an array of nationwide TV and radio stations. There were plans to replace it with a new public broadcast company called NERIT, but with a hugely reduced number of staff.
However, its closure was far from the end of the story for ERT. Soon after the announcement was made at around 6PM, the redundant workers returned to their former place of work, took control of the company's broadcast frequencies and began transmitting their own programmes. Supporters started gathering, and by around 10PM – when I made it to the building – thousands had gathered to protest against the government's latest cut. The crowd was made up of all kinds of people, from hardline communists and students to conservatives and entire families there to have their voices heard, even as the channel went black just before midnight.
My friend Marina, a staff reporter for ERT, met me at the entrance of the building. Explaining her thoughts on the situation, she told me, "When you have a headache, you take a painkiller – you don't cut your head off, do you?" Continuing, she said, "We didn't intend to occupy the station, but with this crowd we just had to do it."
Everything in the building was still operational, but – unsurprisingly – manned in a much more chaotic way than usual. ERT's technicians were struggling to keep the signal alive in the control room as the government continued to shut down crucial broadcasting components one after the other.
“They started with the digital transmitters,” said Sotiris from the web department, as he frantically tried to install a new DSL line. “Then they moved to analogue and all the antennas in the countryside. We’ve been playing hide and seek for a few hours now. We redirect the signal through alternative routes to keep it alive and they’re gradually shutting us down. We’ll continue until someone loses the game.”
By this point, the corridors were packed with people, still in shock after hearing the news only a few hours earlier. “The ERT only had a surplus of around €40 million last year," Marina told me. "What do they mean it’s a high spending public service?” Andreas Partsalidis, a long-serving sports presenter, added, “The vast majority of our salaries are no more than €1,000 a month. I still earn the same amount after 30 years of work."
One of the occupied control rooms.
I made my way to the web department, where the main internet connection had been cut, forcing technicians to install new private ADSL lines so they could livestream programmes over the internet. Members of the Athens Metropolitan Wireless Network (AMWN) – a grassroots community providing wireless internet – turned up to offer help bypassing the telecoms company that had shut down ERT's internet access by government mandate.
“At some points we were almost completely gone,” George, a journalist, told me the next day. “People were in despair and we thought, 'This is it.' Then someone stood up and shouted, 'As long as we're even reaching one viewer, I'll keep my position.' And there were lots of people outside, so we couldn't give up."
By the morning, the workers had won a few important technical battles, but the signal was still unstable and they had to regularly change the analogue and digital frequencies to keep on broadcasting. Worse still, armed police had begun trekking up the mountains around Athens to switch off ERT's antennas.
The occupied ERT building.
However, that same morning the European Broadcasters Union (EBU) – an organisation encompassing broadcasting companies from 56 countries around the world – took an active stance in support of ERT, setting them up with a channel on satellite TV so they could continue broadcasting. That meant that the programmes put out by those occupying the ERT building were now being transmitted via the original ERT World satellite position all over the world, from Australia to the USA, as well as over the internet on hundreds of websites.
The question being asked after the EBU's backing was, "Is this the spark everybody's been waiting for?" After months of the country's patience being exhausted, were we now expected to accept such a huge austerity measure without some kind of protest?
When Mubarak banned Al Jazeera journalists from Egypt and blocked access to the internet during the country's uprising, he just motivated those taking part in the revolution even more. And news of Erdogan arresting bloggers and Twitter users in Turkey during their recent uprising had exactly the same effect.
By Thursday afternoon, two political parties that support New Democracy were openly questioning the government's decision to shut down ERT. Then, late on Thursday night, the BBC's director general, Tony Hall, called on the Greek government to reopen their state broadcaster. Meanwhile, the president of the EBU, Jean Paul Philippot, wrote to the president of the European Commission, urging him to force the Greek government to reverse its decision.
On Friday morning, Philippot gave a press conference from inside the occupied ERT building in Athens. “I'm here because this has never happened before in Europe – not since the founding of the EBU – that one of our members has gone black," he said. "Even when the Berlin Wall fell, television was still in operation in East Germany. We know that the ERT wasn't exactly perfect in its operation [it was often accused of being corrupt and nepotistic], but it's not the people who work here to blame for this.”
Protesters outside the ERT building.
Analysts have suggested that the closure happened to cover failures in the Greek government's privatisation programme. A few days ago, an effort to privatise the public gas company DEPA failed when Russian company Gazprom withdrew its bid. Economists are warning that, by September, a new bailout may be needed to support the Greek economy and that the government will continue making cuts in a country where 27 percent of citizens, a record high, are already unemployed.
Last night, Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras offered to partially reinstate ERT, saying, "A temporary committee… can be appointed to hire a small number of [ERT] employees so that the broadcast of information programmes can begin immediately." But almost immediately the Greek Federation of Journalists and an ERT union pledged that no journalist in the country would take up this chance of temporary re-employment. The proposal was also rejected by the two minor parties in the coalition government, who said that if Samaras insists on ERT's closure, his party will have full responsibility for a new round of elections, just one year after the current government was elected. ERT's workers have demanded that the government cancel the decree that shut the company and that all staff be re-hired in full.
The majority of ERT's former employees are still occupying the Athens HQ and other ERT offices across the company, continuing to broadcast over the internet. It remains to be seen if their demands are met, and whether this will be the start of the end for Samaras' tenure.
Follow Matthaios on Twitter: @tsimitakis
More from the Greek crisis: