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ERT shutdown, 12 months on

 NERIT proves doubters wrong while unionists keep trying to score political points

By George Georgakopoulos

“Andres Iniesta’s shot went straight toward the Germany fans, probably to avenge their jeering.” Watching a rerun of the 2010 World Cup match between Spain and Germany on new state TV channel NERIT Sports and listening again to the inane commentary brought home the sense of relief from the demise of one of the most institutionalized of institutions to have dogged the Greek public sector.

A year has elapsed since the dramatic shutdown of national broadcaster ERT on June 11, 2013, and over those 12 months the reality has sunk in, revealing the real motives of everyone involved.

Cornered by its international creditors demanding public sector layoffs and angry at the countless strikes by ERT unionists (POSPERT) trying to cling on to their privileges, the government suspended the state broadcaster's operations and within five weeks replaced it with a temporary project named Public Television (DT). Last month, as promised, a new broadcaster (NERIT) started providing TV services to Greeks at home and abroad, proving wrong those who had said the government did not want a state broadcaster.

When the government pulled the plug on ERT, a chorus of opposition parties, unions and even international media (especially state-funded broadcasters) protested what they saw as an undemocratic move. Indeed it was ugly, but time has proven several things: that it was necessary to do away with an ultra-powerful union which instead of serving employees had a clear party political agenda; that Greece has definitely not been left without a state broadcaster but is building a new, robust and far less lavish corporation at arm’s length from the government; and that the measure was entirely within the boundaries of the country’s constitutional and legal framework, as verdicts by the Council of State – Greece's highest administrative court – have confirmed.

Viewers and listeners were left aghast last year after hearing ERT journalists swearing at ministers live on air in the first few months of 2013, and then seeing them land executive posts at main leftist opposition SYRIZA's official radio station (Sto Kokkino 105.5 FM) and the Athens Journalists' Union (ESIEA). The ERT audience could have been forgiven for thinking that in a great number of instances the ERT staff cared little about their profession, viewers and listeners – to say nothing of their professional principles or code of conduct – but only about themselves while enjoying the cover of POSPERT and ESIEA.

Other ERT journalists, including correspondents abroad, who cried foul at the shutdown, shunning the mere idea of a successor, were quick to apply for a job at DT just months after protesting about a broadcasting coup d’etat.

Worse, when ERT shut down, POSPERT launched a sit-in at the broadcaster's headquarters that lasted until November. Thankfully it was handled well by the police despite attempts by some to turn ERT into a new Polytechnic uprising modeled on the 1973 student movement against the military junta, which ended in bloodshed and the loss of dozens of lives. POSPERT has continued to air a TV and radio program in pirate fashion, and some of its programs are relayed by none other than Sto Kokkino 105.5 FM. They even continue to air their pirate programming with the illegal use of old ERT transmitters and with a party political agenda whose nature is in fact far worse than that of which they have accused the governments of the last few decades.

It degenerates into farce when one notes that leftist parties continue to abstain from political talk shows on NERIT, arguing that it has no legitimacy, when it was the office of the main opposition leader himself, Alexis Tsipras, which informed private channels that they should get footage from his speeches from the state broadcaster in the runup to the May elections.

True, NERIT has experienced significant teething problems. The day after its official launch on May 4, its head, Giorgos Prokopakis, tendered his resignation in protest at the alleged insistence of NERIT monitoring board member Katerina Evangelakou to have her husband’s company be allowed to bid for a contract concerning a number of programs for the new state broadcaster. Evangelakou was NERIT’s caretaking president and chief executive for a week but resigned when she was invited to respond to charges on the issue before the monitoring board. Antonis Makrydimitris has been the head of NERIT since last month, while Prokopakis made it clear in an interview that political intervention did not play a part in his departure, which he attributed to poor cooperation between the executive board and the monitoring board. This is quite original for Greece, though, as such decisions used to be taken by the responsible ministry.

The other, more practical problem concerns delays in the hiring of technical staff by NERIT, meaning that even after the handover from DT to the new broadcaster, most staff continue to get paid by the transitional company.

All this of course comes as no surprise to anyone involved in broadcasting. One would have actually expected much more serious problems in such a venture. In fact several “experts” had predicted that NERIT would never get off the ground and that ERT would reopen within weeks or months. Nothing of the sort happened.

In fact, the new state broadcaster has provided adequate coverage of the Hellenic Presidency of the Council of the European Union, has dispelled rumors it would be unable to cover the major sporting events it has the rights for – the World Cup, the Champions League, the Euroleague, and the Greek basketball league – and responded to doubters regarding Greece’s participation in this year’s Eurovision Song Contest with a resounding 70.8 percent share of viewers on the night of the competition’s final.

POSPERT's last resort has been an attempt to rally people in northern Greece against the government “of Athens” by staging a months-long sit-in at the studios used by ERT’s Thessaloniki channel (ET3). They continue to use the ET3 equipment for their pirate program – relayed by ESIEA’s website as well – and accuse the government of attempting to stifle the voice of the north. However, the prime minister has stated that the second NERIT channel (NERIT 2) will be based in Thessaloniki.

Those who invested politically in the ERT hullabaloo received nothing in return at May’s elections: Junior coalition partner Democratic Left dropped out of the government in disagreement over the closure of ERT last June, only for a low poll result last month to threaten the party with a split (if not extinction). SYRIZA picked former ERT news anchor Aglaia Kyritsi as its party candidate for the Northern Aegean in the regional elections, but she didn't even make the second round in a traditionally left-leaning region.

Now, like a dog gnawing at a bone in frustration, ESIEA continues to ignore the facts of the last 12 months and keeps trying to score political points, calling for a four-hour work stoppage and a protest rally outside the NERIT headquarters on Wednesday. Its mask has fallen.

ekathimerini.com , Tuesday June 10, 2014 (19:37)  
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