French journalists Erwan Manac’h and Marie Chambrial find a group of colleagues in Greece weary but in determined spirits and experimenting with a new type of broadcasting, as they continue on air 24/7 despite the forced closure of the ERT state TV a year ago.
They were thought to be history when the government axed the signal in June 2013, or when the police evicted the occupants of the studios in Athens in November. But no, the former employees of ERT, the Greek TV network, cling to their idea of public television. Its 13 months now that they continue to work without authorization or salary and broadcast 24 hours a day from the studios of country’s third channel, in Thessaloniki, the largest city in the north of the country.
The studios are housed in three-story cube like building, crowned with antennas, inside, a smoke-filled atmosphere, walls of screens and dozens of forgotten coffee cups. The premises are occupied day and night by at least one volunteer in charge of the alarm, in case of riot police manoeuvres outside the studios. The third channel of the “Greece Radio TV’, broadcasts on the internet and on analog channels that have not been cut in some islands and rural areas, perhaps a third of the national territory. It broadcasts several hours a day direct. A daily news bulletin and several current affairs programs, sports or even entertainment.
17 h. The open plan third floor of the building comes to life. A dozen journalists and numerous technicians prepare the evening news. “Have you come to see the ‘success story'”? jokes Dimitra, a smartly dressed thirtysomething. She’s referring to conservative Antonis Samaras shameless boasting of a “Greek success story” on a visit to China. ERT – the illegal version – made it a point of honour to expose the sham claims of the government. They even made a t-shirt.
The former public broadcaster was once suspected a seeking favour with the powers that be and shaken by scandals. But things here in the Thessaloniki studies have changed.
A new style of broadcasting
“On June 11, 2013, we began broadcasting almost round the clock live. The style had changed. It was no longer a newscast. We had to fight, ” recalls Eric Postiaux, cameraman of Belgian origin, who was in charge of our visit. He had worked at ERT for 19 years. The editorial staff have forged links with other social movements, such as workers at the self-managed factory Vio Me.
They’ve linked up with former employees of a Coca-Cola factory that ceased production in Thessaloniki, and school caretakers who were fired en mass by the government. Documentaries of these struggles have been broadcast by the channel, and university students in the city offer coverage themselves.
In a room that looks like a computer lab, Anastasia focuses on graphics and titles for the evening news. In the background, the channel rebroadcasts a program about Taiped, the body responsible for fire sale privatization program: transport, mail, water, electricity, beaches, historical monuments, etc..
On a shoestring
Due to a lack of time and resources, the news bulletin is built on a shoestring. Images are retrieved from internet, recorded telephone conversations … The rare reports produced on location by the journalists are filmed with an amateur camera because cameras cannot be taken out of the studio. “Because the equipment does not belong to us, if we take it out with us we can be accused of theft,” says Eric. But that does not diminish the pride felt by Siganidou Christina, with 20 years experience at the news organisation as an international journalist, and today a presenter:
“Before, I was in my own world. I went to Strasbourg and Brussels. I thought of my career,” says the channels’ former chief of European coverage. “We have started a whole new approach. Even the language we use in broadcasts is different. ”
22 h, the news bulletin begins. Without deadlines or a program schedule to meet. Tonight, Ukraine and Gaza occupy the first fifteen minutes of transmission. The former war reporter of the channel, always out and about, is reporting direct from Gaza.
Eric, explains how things have changed in terms of the relationships with co-workers: “We all suffered from depression, many have had panic attacks. We are in a state of psychological shock, but we are tolerant of others when a program is canceled or there is a problem.”
Forget audience share!
Its best not to speak of audience share to Kostas Karikis, editor in chief who spins around the studios like a conductor of an orchestra. “The vocation of public television, he says, is to give a voice to “those whose message cannot necessarily attract a large audience. Because the audience is distracted by media propaganda produced to stifle their messages.”
An editor at ERT’s Athens studios, he has come to Thessaloniki to work at his own expense, “because there’s a need” Officially, ERT was closed for due to the need for budgetary savings and to purge a public sector corruption and fingers as a privileged club. Kostas’ version is quite different (English):
Others also blame the pressure of private channels who were seeing their advertising revenue wither. “The government did not want to compete with private groups,” says Eric, who refuses to believe that budget savings were the sole reason for the abrupt closure of ERT.”
The cost of the crisis has already been paid by employees of ERT. Before the first “memorandum” imposed by the Troika (IMF, World Bank and EU) in 2009, Eric earned 1,050 euros over 14 months (after 12 years on a fixed term contract, seniority was not recognized!). His salary was reduced four years later to 900 euros over 12 months. A decrease of 26%, to which must be added tax increases suffered by all Greeks. For two years, the unraveling of the ERT group was also announced in high places.
Despite this, no one imagined such a brutal announcement, when the Prime Minister spoke of the fate of the three public channels network and its 2,900 employees (filmed by documentary filmmaker Yorgos Avgeropoulos). Eric chose this June 11, 2013 to announce his marriage to his colleague, Anastasia. They were a 100% ERT couple, one of many at the broadcaster. “When I heard the announcement, it was like looking into a black hole, he recalls. I was lost. I continued sending out wedding invitations, almost mechanically. It is only an hour after I realized what was happening. ”
A month and a half after the closure of ERT, the government quickly reopened a new temporary channel, “Delta Tav.”
Former employees of ERT had to choose: continue the fight at their own expense, or apply immediately for a job at the new public network, which was to employ 600 former employees [ out of a workforce of just under 2,700 jobs] on a precarious contract. The close-knit team was torn apart. “Delta Tav is controlled by the Ministry of Economy. Employees are paid directly by the government, it’s a government TV channel,” protests Eric, who confesses to have lost a few close friends as a result.
The “transitional” channel ceased broadcasting in May, replaced by Nerit, a permanent network, which employs some of former workforce on precarious contracts (the new director has already resigned).
For the 20 odd former ERT employees, the struggle continues. Against the clock. Their fate is hanging on national policy issues. The hypothesis of a call for early elections, which dominates debates, could result in big changes. If SYRIZA came to power, “we can be sure that they reopen the ERT. This is perhaps the only thing they would do,” jokes Kostas, who is an activist in the radical left party.
In the meanwhile, they must hold on, amid each new rumor of police intervention, without a penny. And for some days now, without any unemployment benefit. Eric tries to film a few weddings, and hopes to resume piecework to cover football matches. “In Thessaloniki, the unemployment rate amoung journalists is 70%! If it continues like this, the trade will be erased, added Christina. So we prefer to stay active, come here rather than just get depressed at home. Because we love our job. ”
Thessaloniki exists in this suspended time, looking for the end of a tunnel five years long. In this marathon, the question remains: Why don’t they expel us? It would be done in 5 minutes. They would recover equipment and premises. It remains a mystery,” asks Eric. Their presence in the premises justifies the delay in the installation of a new public television worthy of the name, the former ERT volunteers argue.
The government seems anxious to avoid a third moral shock, after closing the signal in June 2013 and the evacuation of the Athenian premises in November. But in recent days, a new rumour has been circulating that the state intends to recover these studios too, before the end of August.
Translation/edit by Revolting Europe
Backgrounder on ERT