Protesters occupy the ERT headquarters for the third day after the public broadcasting company was shut down on June 11, 2013. (Photo: linmtheu)
“I Have Just Been Ordered Not to Speak”
This is the seventh in a series of articles that chronicle the long history of corruption, lawlessness and censorship in Greece’s media and journalism landscapes. This is a situation that has worsened in recent years in the midst of the country’s severe economic crisis, but it has a deeply-rooted history.
It was the evening of June 11, 2013, when television screens across Greece went dark and when Greece once again found itself generating negative global headlines, following the Greek government’s sudden and largely unexpected shutdown of ERT, Greece’s national public broadcaster.
While the unprecedented shutdown of a national public broadcaster in a European Union member-state garnered, at least initially, a tremendous amount of attention from the international media, what was often missing from this coverage was the broader context in which this decision by the government was enforced. It is this context that has been examined and analyzed at length in the various installments of articles on Greek media. This context has included the convoluted, haphazard, and unjust regulatory regime under which media in Greece operate, the disproportionate influence that is wielded by Greece’s media owners, who represent most of the country’s business and financial elite, and the long history of government meddling and interference in Greece’s media. It is this context that also serves as an excellent and accurate predictor of the real reasons behind ERT’s sudden shutdown, for reasons that had less to do with a supposed desire to promote “transparency” or to save money during a time of economic belt-tightening, and more to do with the interests and demands of Greece’s media moguls.
On June 11, 2013, following rumors that had begun to swirl during the day, then-government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou, himself a former ERT employee, publicly announced the immediate shutdown and dissolution of ERT. In his speech, Kedikoglou levied a series of accusations against ERT to justify the government’s decision. Kedikoglou described ERT as a bloated haven of corruption, waste and partisanship, one that lacked transparency and which was a burden on Greek households, through the license fee paid by Greek households via their electricity bills. He further justified the decision based on ERT’s supposedly low ratings compared to its commercial counterparts, adding that ERT maintained an “excessive” number of regional radio stations with little original programming. Notably, it was Kedikoglou who, in several instances, had categorically denied that ERT was about to be shuttered, including in interviews less than a month before the closure, and on his website. ERT’s shutdown seemed to contravene various clauses in the Greek constitution, as well as the Treaty of Amsterdam which oversees public service broadcasting in Europe. ERT, as an entity, was transferred to the control and oversight of the Greek finance ministry, which was to oversee its dissolution.
Ironically, ERT, which until that point had been the only fully legal broadcaster in Greece, was forced to continue operating essentially as a “pirate” station.
In place of ERT, Kedikoglou announced the impending launch of a new national broadcaster, NERIT, which would operate with a leaner staff and budget, and which he claimed would be more independent from the government and staffed via a transparent hiring process. Kedikoglou claimed that this new public broadcaster would be ready to broadcast within “1-2 months.” Just hours after Kedikoglou’s announcement, the Greek government, in a stunning tour de force, shut down ERT’s broadcast signal nationwide, severing the fiber optic lines which fed the signal to most transmitters throughout the country. At around 11 p.m. that evening, screens around the country went black, as did ERT’s national radio frequencies. At the request of the government, phone and internet lines at ERT facilities were cut by OTE, Greece’s telecommunications giant, which is owned by Deutsche Telekom. Armed police forces raided mountaintop transmission facilities in Athens and Thessaloniki, breaking down doors and windows, evicting personnel, and changing the locks. While the government initially did not try to take back control of ERT’s main headquarters in Athens, a lone ERT security guard who remained at a secondary ERT facility in central Athens was surrounded by over 20 riot police and three police vans, until the end of his shift at 6 a.m. ERT’s 2,690 staffers were verbally informed, via various government statements, that they were fired.
The response to ERT’s sudden closure was unprecedented: Within hours, a citizen’s movement in support of ERT sprang up, heavily fueled by social media. On Twitter, #ERT and #occupyert became two of the top trending hashtags worldwide and remained amongst the top hashtags in Greece for several weeks after the closure. As ERT’s employees took control of the public broadcaster’s main headquarters in Athens and other ERT facilities throughout the country, ERT began to transmit a live protest broadcast via the internet and whichever transmitters ERT employees still had access to, with the name “ERT Open.” Dozens upon dozens of websites sprang up as well, retransmitting ERT Open’s internet stream. Ironically, ERT, which until that point had been the only fully legal broadcaster in Greece, was forced to continue operating essentially as a “pirate” station.
In the days following the closure, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), of which ERT was a founding member, lent its support, providing a satellite uplink that restored ERT Open’s broadcasts to Europe via Eutelsat. The EBU added its own internet rebroadcast of ERT Open’s programming as well. In Thessaloniki, ERT subsidiary ERT3 set up its own nonstop protest broadcast, also carried via satellite and the internet with the EBU’s support. Several radio and television stations throughout the country began to rebroadcast ERT Open’s broadcasts as well, in a show of solidarity with their now-fired colleagues at the public broadcaster.
The Greek government’s reaction to these developments could only be described as a hardening of their original stance. Giannis Stournaras, the unelected Greek finance minister whose ministry took control of ERT to oversee its dissolution, sent a written warning to radio and television stations nationwide, informing them that they would face consequences if they rebroadcast ERT Open’s broadcast. Sto Kokkino 105.5 FM, a radio station in Athens owned by the left-wing Syriza political party, was threatened with closure after it rebroadcast portions of ERT’s protest broadcasts. More egregiously, 902 TV, a television station owned by the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) also attempted to rebroadcast ERT Open’s programming, but in each instance, had its digital signal repeatedly taken off the air and replaced by color bars and a test tone by DIGEA, the private company operating the network of digital over-the-air transmitters used by Greece’s national private television stations, and which is jointly owned by those stations.
In an internal DIGEA document which was leaked to the public, the company’s call center employees were instructed what to tell viewers who called in to complain about 902 TV’s signal being taken off the air. Similarly to 902 TV, Zoom TV, a smaller television station broadcasting in the Athens region, was also censored by DIGEA when it briefly rebroadcast ERT Open. In one additional incident, radio station Kriti FM in Athens, a station shut down by the Greek government in 2001 and which was broadcasting without any form of legality, mysteriously went off the air on the day of ERT’s closure, during a live interview regarding the closure with politician Vasilis Leventis, the president of the minor Centrists’ Union political party. Leventis’ own television station, Kanali 67, had been taken off the air by the then-government in September 1993.
Foreign actors were also not immune to the government’s pressure and intimidation. Within days of the initial shutdown, one of ERT’s satellite feeds being provided by EBU was removed from the Hotbird satellite by RRsat, an Israeli company that provided the uplink of the signal to Hotbird. This occurred via diplomatic channels consequent to an official request of the Greek government via its ambassador in Israel. While ERT’s and ERT3’s satellite broadcast continued on the EBU’s own frequencies on Eutelsat, the loss of the Hotbird feed meant that most ERT transmitters throughout Greece, which had been brought back on the air by ERT’s engineers in the interim, went black again, as they had been set up to retransmit the feed from Hotbird.
On June 20, 2013, the Council of State issued a vaguely-worded decision calling for the immediate resumption of “public broadcasting,” including television and radio services, as well as an internet presence. Both sides immediately claimed victory.
Within hours of the original shutdown, ERT Open’s signal reappeared via an analogue broadcast in the VHF band in Athens, only to go down again within hours. After that, a digital broadcast was set up, which was repeatedly forced to change frequencies, as in each instance, the signal that was being broadcast faced heavy interference, reportedly by DIGEA, which made the digital signal impossible to receive in many parts of Athens. ERT’s employees also launched FM broadcasts from the rooftop of their headquarters in Athens, initially on 91.6 FM, and then after facing interference, on 91.8 FM, a signal which however only covered a portion of Athens. The challenges didn’t end there, however.
On July 29, 2013, a group of ERT employees traveled to the Mount Imittos transmitter site in Athens along with numerous private citizens, to protest the shutdown of ERT and to attempt to restore ERT’s signal. Eight protesters were violently arrested by police and faced trumped-up charges of damaging public property, endangering air travel and defiance against police authorities. That same month, police also stormed and shut down transmitters retransmitting ERT Open in numerous locations across the country, including at Geraneia, an important transmitter site near Athens, and at Pilio, a key transmission point covering much of Central Greece, in the city of Tripoli, and in the island of Kefalonia, whose transmitter site provides coverage to much of Western Greece.
In other instances, however, it was private actors, and not police forces, that were responsible for taking ERT’s signal off the air. In June 2013, just days after the official shutdown, ERT’s transmitters in the Kalamata region were reportedly taken off the air by a security team allegedly working on behalf of the owner of a local television station, Best TV, which is said to maintain close ties to the New Democracy party. In August 2013, the owner of a local television station on the island of Lesvos allegedly broke in to ERT’s broadcasting facility, took ERT’s transmitters off the air, and then changed the locks on the door before departing. The individual in question had recently been convicted of extortion and has also been implicated in other criminal matters.
The purportedly “public” broadcaster which was to replace ERT on an interim basis, broadcast out of the privately-owned TVE studios, whose shareholders include Pegasus Publishing and the Lambrakis Journalism Group, and which used to house Mega Channel, Greece’s largest private television station and one of the most fervent supporters of the government’s policies.
As all of this was taking place, ERT’s employees throughout Greece continued to produce radio and television programming on a 24/7 basis, continuing to occupy ERT’s main Athens headquarters, ERT’s facilities in Thessaloniki, and regional facilities in various other parts of the country. In addition to the programming ERT’s employees continued to produce, ERT’s facilities became the site of daily protests. These protests often drew large crowds and were often accompanied by live music and theatrical performances, many of which were, in turn, rebroadcast by ERT. ERT’s broadcasts also continued via satellite, on the medium-wave band, and on shortwave for listeners across the globe. ERT’s employees also took immediate action on the legal front, filing an immediate appeal with the Council of State, calling for the immediate suspension of the government’s decision to shut down ERT.
On June 20, 2013, the Council of State issued a vaguely-worded decision calling for the immediate resumption of “public broadcasting,” including television and radio services, as well as an internet presence. Both sides immediately claimed victory. The government claimed that the decision did not specifically mention ERT and that the court accepted its closure, while authorizing the government to operate ERT under a temporary regime of “receivership” under the authority of the Ministry of Finance, which would have the right to “keep or fire any or all employees” of ERT. On the flip side, ERT’s employees argued that the decision was in their favor, as the decision called for the immediate resumption of public broadcasting, something only ERT was in a position to accomplish.
It quickly became clear that the government was in no position to accept anything other than the most favorable interpretation of the court’s decision regarding ERT. Not only did ERT not officially return to the airwaves, but the government did not “immediately” launch public broadcasts of any kind. It was not until the morning of July 10, 2013, that “EDT” (Elliniki Dimosia Tileorasi – Hellenic Public Television) was launched: a single channel initially only broadcast content from ERT’s archives. EDT was soon simply shortened to “DT.” A radio service was not launched until early September, offering one “news” station only initially receivable in Athens. A bare-bones website was also finally launched in early September, based on a direct copy of the template previously used for ERT’s website. What was certainly clear is that the much-touted new public broadcaster, which was to be named “NERIT” (Nea Elliniki Radiofonia, Internet, Tileorasi – New Hellenic Radio, Internet and Television), was not going to be ready to air anywhere within the “1-2 months” promised by Kedikoglou and the Greek government on June 11, 2013.
Notably, DT, the purportedly “public” broadcaster that was to replace ERT on an interim basis, broadcast out of the privately-owned TVE studios, whose shareholders include Pegasus Publishing and the Lambrakis Journalism Group and which used to house Mega Channel, Greece’s largest private television station and one of the most fervent supporters of the government’s policies. DT’s feed was then digitally encoded by DIGEA, the private consortium owned by Greece’s six largest private television stations, and was sent to DIGEA-owned transmitters via fiber optic lines leased from privately-owned OTE.
What nobody talked about was the cost. It was finally revealed on November 5, 2013 that the Greek state was to pay €155,000 to TVE for the services it provided. This contract apparently was approved without an open, public tender with a 30-day window, as prescribed by law. Nor was any decision for the awarding of the contract ever published in the government’s online database, Diavgeia. Additionally, it was also revealed on November 5 that a €468,000 expenditure had been approved for the leasing of a broadcast control system from a private firm, a system said to cost, at most, €80,000 on the retail market.
For an expenditure of this size, a public bidding process should have been advertised on the Europa website, which the government failed to do. Moreover, as with the aforementioned contract, the administrative decision to award this contract was not published in the government gazette or online database. It could indeed be said that there was nothing “public” about Greece’s interim “public” broadcaster.
Adding to the apparently close connection between DT and private media giants such as Pegasus Publishing and the Lambrakis Journalism Group was the selection of Pantelis Kapsis for the newly-created position of Deputy Minister of Public Broadcasting on June 24, 2013. Kapsis is a former journalist and former government spokesman who was once an editor at the daily newspaper Ta Nea, which is owned by the Lambrakis Journalism Group, a shareholder in Mega Channel’s parent company. Additionally, Pantelis’ brother, Mihalis Kapsis, is a prominent journalist at none other than Mega Channel.
The lone live voice on the airwaves at that hour, Nikos Tsimpidas, hastily ended his radio program by stating “I have just been ordered not to speak.”
Though the EBU had, initially at least, vociferously opposed the Greek government’s move to shutter ERT, the launch of DT was the beginning of the end with regard to the EBU’s support of ERT. There were many who noted that the EBU, despite its initially strong rhetoric, stopped short of stating that it would provide unequivocal support for ERT or pledging that it would not recognize any other “public” broadcast entity that would be launched by the Greek government. This paved the way for the EBU to announce, on August 19, 2013, that it would cease its satellite and internet retransmissions of ERT. According to the EBU, the decision followed reports that DT would launch news broadcasts that same week. Furthermore, the EBU claimed that it had “honored” its pledge to “relay the ex-ERT signal until a terrestrial signal carrying basic public service media output could be established.” The EBU additionally justified its decision on the basis of new laws that had been passed in the Greek parliament, which, it claimed “will form the foundation for an independent public service media” and that 600 individuals had been hired to work at the interim broadcaster.
The issue of unpaid severance packages is not the only instance in which the Greek state seems to have broken the law with regards to the shutdown of ERT and the launch of NERIT.
Despite the loss of EBU support, ERT’s employees continued to produce radio and television programming into the fall. ERT relaunched a satellite broadcast with a European footprint via the Astra satellite, but after pressure from the Greek government, Astra’s parent company, SES, which is based in Luxembourg, dropped these broadcasts. ERT’s satellite feed later surfaced on a Russian satellite, Express-AM44. However, in the fall of 2013, rumors began to circulate that the Greek government was planning an invasion of ERT’s Athens headquarters. These rumors were later accompanied by an open call, signed by several New Democracy MPs, calling for the “restoration of legality” and the eviction of ERT’s employees from the facilities of the public broadcaster, while Kapsis stated the need for the Greek government to have access to these facilities, for the purposes of providing television coverage of Greece’s rotating EU presidency in the first half of 2014.
Raid on Athens Headquarters
During the very early morning hours of November 7, 2013, the government followed through on its threats, sending riot police to invade ERT’s Athens headquarters at approximately 4:30 in the morning. ERT’s headquarters were immediately sealed off, and, despite being public property, access was blocked to journalists, to members of the parliament, and to the general public. The few ERT employees who were present at that hour were detained, and access to other ERT employees was barred. The lone live voice on the airwaves at that hour, Nikos Tsimpidas, hastily ended his radio program by stating “I have just been ordered not to speak.”
As news began to spread via social media and via ERT Open’s broadcasts, which continued from facilities in Thessaloniki and other cities, protesters began to gather outside ERT’s headquarters. Riot police responded violently, firing tear gas and shoving several prominent protesters, such as musician Vasillis Papakonstantinou, as well as members of parliament who arrived on the scene. Notably and probably not surprisingly, interim public broadcaster DT largely ignored the incident, as did most of Greece’s major privately-owned media outlets.
Despite the riot police invasion of ERT’s main facilities in Athens, ERT Open continues to operate out of facilities in Thessaloniki and in other cities throughout Greece, on various FM and medium-wave frequencies, a small handful of television frequencies in a few remaining regions, via shortwave radio, and online. These broadcasts continue with the constant threat that these remaining ERT facilities will, too, be the targets of unannounced, overnight raids by the riot police, or other actions by the Greek state to take ERT Open’s broadcasts off the air permanently.
It should go without saying that ERT’s employees, during this time, have not been paid, and in many cases, they have not received all or part of the severance packages that they were promised when ERT was officially shut down. In late May, a group of ERT employees filed a complaint with Greece’s public advocate over their unpaid severance packages. Outside contractors who were owed money by ERT reportedly have also not received the money owed to them by ERT’s liquidators.
The issue of unpaid severance packages is not the only instance in which the Greek state seems to have broken the law with regards to the shutdown of ERT and the launch of NERIT. The announcement of ERT’s shutdown occurred despite the fact that no debate took place publicly or in parliament, and certainly not with ERT management or staff. Instead, an urgent legislative decree ordering the shutdown of ERT, signed by various government ministers, was announced, the 19th such order passed by the current government up until that point. According to the Greek constitution, such decrees can only be issued in times of national urgency.
The specific order shutting down ERT was signed only by members of New Democracy, which alone does not have enough seats in parliament to constitute a majority. Additionally, the decree was not ratified by parliament within the constitutionally mandated 40-day period, rendering it – and ERT’s shutdown – invalid. Moreover, ERT employees were not informed in writing of their layoffs, as prescribed by Greek law, and still have not been presented with such documentation to this day. This reality does not seem to have made much of a difference to the members of Greece’s Council of State, however, which aside from its initial vaguely-worded decision ordering the restoration of “public broadcasting” nine days after ERT’s official closure, issued a final decision on May 25, 2014, confirming the legality of the shutdown.
In a 15-10 decision issued by the court, the Council of State justified the shutdown of ERT based on the claims that the Greek Constitution does not require the existence and operation of a public broadcaster, that ERT’s shutdown was economically justified, and that the government abided by law 4173/2013 (which established NERIT, and which was issued in July 2013, after the closure of ERT) in the establishment of a new public broadcaster. Furthermore, the firing of ERT’s employees was justified by the court, which ruled that they did not come under the purview of Greek and European legislation pertaining to mass layoffs, claiming that those laws do not cover employees who work at a public corporation which performs a public function. Indeed, in a recent development, the government revealed plans, in August, to strip ERT’s employees of seniority rights in the calculations of their severance pay. This development will result in a reduction in the amount of severance many of ERT’s employees will receive.
Soon after the announcement of the impending formation of NERIT, a site called nerit.gr was registered by a private citizen, and in a major embarrassment for the government, began to feature a live internet stream of ERT Open’s programming.
ERT employees have, however, found a modicum of justice in Greece’s lower courts. In a decision that was issued just a few days before the Council of State’s ruling in May, the Court of First Instance in the city of Iraklio ruled that the firing of ERT employees was, indeed, illegal and in violation of European law pertaining to mass layoffs, and that the government did not inform the employees in a timely manner or place the issue of ERT’s closure or the layoffs up for debate, as foreseen by law. The judge ruled that the decision was to take immediate effect and that ERT’s employees were to have their jobs restored. This decision, as with many other court decisions pertaining to the media that are inconvenient for the government of the day, has been completely ignored.
Aside from clear violations of the law, the haphazard and disorganized manner in which ERT’s shutdown and the launch of DT and NERIT took place is plainly and embarrassingly evident as well. Despite promises that a new public broadcaster would be ready to air within 1-2 months following ERT’s closure, it was only interim broadcaster DT that launched within a month of the shutdown, with one television station and, initially, no original programming. After numerous delays, NERIT itself did not launch until May 5, 2014, with little fanfare and essentially providing the same programming that had been found on “interim” broadcaster DT and its radio service. And in the time that NERIT has officially been on the air, it had barely managed to launch a second television service (“NERIT Sports”), seemingly only for the purposes of the channel’s World Cup football coverage, while its radio services currently number three: the “First Program” (news and sports), the “Third Program” (classical music), and “Kosmos” (global music).
Indeed, “Kosmos” is a direct copy of the radio station by the same name that had been operated by ERT, and it is currently operating with an automated playlist and no live voices on the air. In turn, the management and operation of the supposedly public “Third Program” have been outsourced to a private contractor, a practice considered illegal. Earlier this week, the “Third Program” ceased its live programming, after its employees refused to accept salary cuts and a reduction to the station’s operating budget. The “Third Program” now airs automated music and repeats of older programming.
NERIT’s television and radio signals are, four months later, still not available over the air in large swaths of the country, particularly in rural areas and border regions, but this has not stopped the Greek State from charging a license fee for NERIT on all electric bills, regardless of the availability of its broadcasts in that particular region. On the other hand, in Athens, NERIT’s three radio services are available on a total of . . . 14 FM frequencies, even as there is supposedly “no room” on the dial for additional privately-owned stations. Other than one additional radio station based in Thessaloniki, which primarily airs an automated playlist, no other regional radio services are operated by NERIT (ERT operated 21 such services, including two radio stations in Macedonia), and additionally, no external radio service or satellite television service is operated for Greece’s large diaspora and the worldwide community.
Television rights acquired by ERT were also, in several instances, transferred to private broadcasters for laughable sums or for no compensation at all.
The haste with which the decision to close ERT was made and implemented was also evidenced by the fact that the Greek government had neglected to register the “nerit.gr” domain name. Soon after the announcement of the impending formation of NERIT, the site nerit.gr was registered by a private citizen, and in a major embarrassment for the government, began to feature a live internet stream of ERT Open’s programming. Within days, however, Greece’s top-level domain registrar, in violation of the law and the first-come, first-serve principle of the domain name registration on the Internet, allegedly shut down nerit.gr. The domain now belongs to NERIT.
The transfer of these valuable broadcast rights for dubious sums provides a strong hint as to the true reasons behind the sudden closure of ERT.
In another example demonstrating the haphazard manner in which DT and NERIT were established, as well as the lack of originality found in their efforts, DT’s original logo was an almost exact copy of a local television station in the island of Kos that is also abbreviated “DT,” while the two successive logos which followed bore a striking resemblance to the logos of now-defunct television station Tele Time, based in the city of Patra, and Greek magazine 4 Troxoi. In turn, the logo of NERIT bears a tremendous resemblance to the logo of Microsoft’s well-known “.NET” software. The lack of originality extends to NERIT’s website, which was found to have been built using a commonly-available WordPress template, titled Ya’aburnee, which is available for $55.
Television rights which had been acquired by ERT were also, in several instances, transferred to private broadcasters for laughable sums or for no compensation at all. For instance, following the shutdown of ERT, Skai TV purchased the rights to the remaining matches of the Greek basketball finals, which were already in progress, for a paltry €70,000. NERIT lost the rights to broadcast the Eurobasket championship tournament in 2013 and 2015 to ANT1 TV and pay-television provider OTE TV, while the broadcast rights to the 2014 FIBA World Cup of Basketball were also acquired by ANT1 and OTE TV. One set of broadcast rights which DT and NERIT did keep, however, was for the coverage of UEFA Champions League football matches. ERT had signed a contract to carry these matches in 2011, but when it was liquidated, DT and later NERIT continued broadcasting the matches, without there being any apparent evidence that the €5.4 million which remained on the original contract had been paid. As with several other DT and NERIT contracts, the apparent payment to maintain Champions League broadcast rights was not submitted for public audit nor made available in the government’s Diavgeia database.
The transfer of these valuable broadcast rights for dubious sums provides a strong hint as to the true reasons behind the sudden closure of ERT. These reasons likely have less to do with a desire to “trim waste,” combat corruption, or to establish a more independent and transparent public broadcaster in its place. Instead, they have more to do with the interests of Greece’s major media and business moguls, who own the country’s largest national broadcasters and DIGEA, a consortium of Greece’s six largest national private television stations. It is DIGEA that has benefitted the most from ERT’s shutdown, as the events of the past year have proven.
DIGEA is merely required to pay the minimum bid amount of €18 million for the 15 year duration of the license, an amount which comes out to approximately €16,900 per month for each of the stations that are part-owners of DIGEA, despite the fact that consultants hired by the Greek state valued the license at €715 million.
At the time that ERT was shut down in June 2013, the Greek State and the supposedly independent National Commission of Telecommunications and Post, had launched a licensing tender for the company or companies which would construct and operate the nationwide network of digital television transmitters, and by extension, have control over the television frequencies which would be licensed for terrestrial digital television broadcasts. By shutting down ERT at that particular point in time and dissolving it as a legal entity, the Greek State prevented ERT from participating in the bidding process. Furthermore, the tender was tailored in such a way that the requirements set forth could be met by one remaining candidate only: DIGEA. One such requirement is that any company that was to be licensed had to possess previous experience with the marketing and advertising of digital television. Only DIGEA fit those criteria in Greece. This, in effect, shut out every other entity, including ERT as well as the foreign investors that the government claimed it wished to attract. Moreover, there was no clause in the tender that prevented a conflict of interest between the network (transmission) provider and the content (programming) provider. As a result, DIGEA would have no problem operating the network of transmitters even as it, in turn, is owned by the national television broadcasters whose programming would be broadcast via those same transmitters. ERT, which was the first broadcaster to launch digital television transmissions in Greece and which possessed the experience and expertise to build out a network of its own transmitters, was prevented from participating.
“If they don’t have a warrant our communities are trained to not open the door.”
DIGEA indeed ended up being the only participant in the bid, while smaller broadcasters throughout Greece appealed to the Council of State, disputing the legality of the tender. Nevertheless, in June, the Greek State and the EETT granted a nationwide license to DIGEA, to construct a network of digital transmitters for all private television broadcasters nationwide. Indeed, DIGEA is merely required to pay the minimum bid amount of €18 million for the 15 year duration of the license, an amount that comes out to approximately €16,900 per month for each of the stations that are part-owners of DIGEA, despite the fact that consultants hired by the Greek state valued the license at €715 million. Following debate in parliament, deputy telecommunications minister Mihalis Papadopoulos described the tender as “a sign of progress and development” creating “conditions of robust competition,” which “fully serves the public interest.”
The story doesn’t end there, however. The board hired by Greece’s Finance Ministry to oversee ERT’s liquidation, as well as the successive boards of DT and NERIT, apparently neglected to launch a tender for the necessary equipment and services the public broadcaster would need to launch its own national digital broadcasts, via the two remaining nationwide frequencies, which, by law, were still earmarked for public broadcasting. Their apparent and suspicious failure to launch a timely tender has resulted in NERIT leasing the services of DIGEA for the digital transmission of its programming in the Peloponissos region, where the legally-mandated switchover from analog to digital television broadcasts occurred on June 27. The cost of leasing DIGEA’s services for the Peloponissos region amounts to €55,164 per 2 Mbps of data transmitted. NERIT’s two digital frequencies will transmit a maximum capacity of 40 Mbps of data, amounts to €1,103,280 per year, at a time where DIGEA is only required to pay €214,000 per year for the digital frequencies it obtained for the same region.
Moreover, NERIT has been forced, following its unexplained delay, to launch a hastily-conceived tender for the procurement of 28 transmitters for its digital broadcast needs in three regions (Attiki, Peloponissos, Evros) in which the full digital switchover has taken place or is scheduled to take place within the next few weeks, and an additional international tender for 335 additional transmitters for the rest of Greece. Additionally, a tender was issued for the satellite transmission to feed the nationwide network of transmitters.
Notably, while ERT was the first national broadcaster to launch digital television transmissions in Greece, including Greece’s first high-definition channel (ERT HD), DIGEA often served as an obstacle hampering the growth of ERT’s digital network.
According to Greek law, these tenders are illegal. Based on legislation passed in 2010, for contracts valued between €60,000 and €233,000, a national tender must be issued that must be publicized in two Greek newspapers, while for contracts surpassing €233,000, the licensing tender must be international, and it must be published in the Gazette of the European Union. Not only did this not take place, the tender for the transmitters states that the facilities must already exist and be in operation. This essentially “tailors” the tender, once again, for the one and only remaining company that has a nationwide network of digital transmitters in operation in Greece: DIGEA.
The tenders are unclear as to who would be in charge of the technical upkeep of these transmission facilities. What is known, however, is that in regions of Peloponissos which do not receive coverage from the main transmission sites that were part of the digital switchover, local municipalities will be obliged to foot the bill for the purchase of transmission equipment to rebroadcast the digital signals in their respective areas. This is according to an announcement of the Ministry of Infrastructure, Transport and Networks issued in August, placing an additional burden on many local municipalities that are increasingly cash-strapped in a time of economic difficulty.
As if that is not enough, NERIT is also proceeding with the outsourcing of its outside broadcasting capabilities in regions throughout Greece, with NERIT’s board approving a €2,020,000 annual budget for this purpose. This budget would cover the cost of hiring one or more private contractor(s) to provide mobile broadcast units (such as cameras and satellite uplinks as well as outside broadcast vehicles), even though ERT had, in the five years prior to its official shutdown, reportedly invested approximately €10 million in mobile broadcast units and accompanying equipment of its own, begging the question as to the current fate of this equipment.
Notably, while ERT was the first national broadcaster to launch digital television transmissions in Greece, including Greece’s first high-definition channel (ERT HD), DIGEA often served as an obstacle hampering the growth of ERT’s digital network. DIGEA had, for instance, forced ERT to cease operating from the Parnitha transmission facility, one of three transmitter sites covering the hilly Athens region, on the pretext that private television stations were barred from broadcasting a digital signal from the same site during the interim period prior to the final switch-off of analog broadcasts from that facility.
Additionally, DIGEA had previously attempted to prevent ERT from transmitting the audio of its national radio services via its digital television broadcasts, claiming that the same privilege had not been extended to private stations. Now that DIGEA has been given a near-monopoly position in the marketplace, however, and barring a successful appeal by local broadcasters to the Council of State, local and regional television stations, which up until now had the ability to form their own digital broadcast consortiums, will be forced to broadcast via DIGEA’s facilities at whatever cost is set by DIGEA. Furthermore, local privately-owned radio stations, which are constantly under the threat that their broadcast facilities must be “licensed” even as no licensing bid is issued for the stations themselves, have been informed that DIGEA would be willing to provide transmission services on their behalf, from its own facilities and for a cost.
It should be stressed that in Greece, unlike in several other countries, including the United States, private television broadcasters cannot operate their own digital transmitters but are instead forced to broadcast through a “network provider.” This distinction has opened the door for the establishment of DIGEA and its attainment of a near-monopoly in the Greek television marketplace.
While DIGEA can be said to be the major beneficiary of ERT’s closure, a number of individuals who have been associated with the shutdown of ERT or who have been placed in key positions in DT or NERIT have been the recipients of hefty salaries.
A rider passed within the body of completely unrelated legislation in 2013 granted full immunity to the special administrator (liquidator) of ERT, Gikas Manalis, stating that he would not be “subject to criminal, civil, or other liability to third parties for actions or omissions regarding his special administration.”
Contrary to the government’s claims that one reason why ERT was shuttered was to eliminate bloating, waste, and outrageously high-salaried positions, such corrupt practices seem to have continued in earnest by the government with both DT and NERIT. For instance, the salary earned by Kapsis for less than a year of service in the newly-created deputy ministry of public broadcasting reportedly amounts to €368,000, or over €1,000 per day. The monthly gross salary for the president of NERIT has been set at €4,750, while the total salary expenditures for just two months of production of just one of NERIT’s few in-house television programs, “Epi-Menoume Ellada,” amounts to €71,920. This continues practices that successive governments engaged in with ERT. It was reported, for instance, that 36 ERT executives, appointed by the current government, had salaries totaling the combined salaries of the remaining 2,600 employees.
The average salaries of ERT employees reportedly ranged from €1,200-€1,400 per month, far lower than the accusations that most staffers were earning monthly salaries of €2,500-€3,000. As recently as a few months prior to ERT’s shutdown, the Samaras government, which later claimed to be “cleaning up” ERT, installed several high-salaried employees within the public broadcaster. It is perhaps fitting, then, that Kapsis, in a BBC interview in October 2013, stated that the shutdown of ERT “wasn’t about the money.”
In addition to the continued practice of giving high salaries to certain favored individuals within the ranks of the national public broadcaster, several positions seem to have been granted to individuals who have close ties to the government. NERIT’s first president, Giorgos Prokopakis, was reported to have close ties to Kapsis, as former colleagues at the Lambrakis Publishing Group. In another example, a former parliamentary candidate with New Democracy, Renos Haralambidis, who is said to be a personal friend of prime minister Antonis Samaras, was given a timeslot on NERIT for a daily entertainment program.
Full Immunity Granted Liquidator
Moreover, a rider passed within the body of completely unrelated legislation in 2013 granted full immunity to the special administrator (liquidator) of ERT, Gikas Manalis, stating that he would not be “subject to criminal, civil, or other liability to third parties for actions or omissions regarding his special administration.” Essentially, this serves as a tacit admission that laws may have been broken with the shutdown and liquidation of ERT. Manalis has since gone on to accept the position of Chief Executive Officer of Attica Bank, whereas Prokopakis was removed from his position as president on May 5, resulting in him filing an appeal with the Council of State recently, claiming that his ouster was unconstitutional and illegal, as well as allegations that political interests were behind his removal and the selection of Antonis Makridimitris as his replacement.
Many positions for which a public hiring process had been declared have not yet been filled, while other positions within NERIT have been filled without going through the public hiring procedure prescribed by law.
Government interference in the supposedly “independent” NERIT was further confirmed in a new law passed by Parliament in early August, which foresees that the selection of the members of NERIT’s board of directors will directly be chosen by the government ministry overseeing NERIT. This board will then be tasked with electing the president of NERIT, following a recommendation issued by a three-member panel consisting of representatives of the “independent” Supreme Council for Civil Personnel Selection, the ESR, and the State Legal Council, which in turn is under the purview of the Ministry of Finance. This latest law drew the ire of the EBU, to which NERIT has not yet qualified for full membership. On August 12, the EBU sent a letter directly to Prime Minister Samaras, expressing concern about the loss of independence at NERIT and requesting that he intervene.
While this has been taking place, NERIT has continued to function with a “skeleton” staff of approximately 600-700 employees, many of whom are holdovers from DT who had originally been hired by the Ministry of Finance and who allegedly were employed without receiving basic employment and insurance provisions prescribed by law, according to allegations filed by the Athens Journalists’ Union in August 2013. Many positions for which a public hiring process had been declared have not yet been filled, while other positions within NERIT have been filled without going through the public hiring procedure prescribed by law.
Meanwhile, NERIT’s hiring practices have repeatedly come under question. In August, it was revealed that in the latest hiring tender issued by NERIT, a “special category of 20%” was created, which allowed applicants who did not meet most or all of the criteria set forth in the hiring tender to nevertheless be hired. Furthermore, in February, when a list displaying the results of the point system used to evaluate candidates for 356 new positions within the broadcaster mysteriously appeared on NERIT’s website, then disappeared within minutes, even though the evaluation process purportedly had not yet been completed. More recently, in July, NERIT came under attack by the Athens Journalists’ Union for the hiring of 22 journalists, which allegedly included individuals who had already officially retired, as well as candidates who were said to have received an excessive and undeserved number of points in the point system used by NERIT to evaluate job candidates.
Allegations such as these have led prosecutors to recently launch an investigation into the hiring of 132 individuals at NERIT. Meanwhile, many other vital positions that existed under ERT, including engineers and technicians in each region of Greece which would service the nationwide network of transmitters, have apparently been eliminated within NERIT. The impact of this has already become evident, as malfunctions and other technical issues that have taken NERIT’s television or radio signals off the air on occasion in various parts of the country have taken days, or weeks, to be repaired, as technical crews must now travel from Athens to the locations in question, and only once the expenditure has been approved.
One of the rationales given by the government to justify ERT’s closure was that ERT cost Greek households a fortune, via the mandatory license fee levied on electricity bills. What wasn’t mentioned is that this license fee – €4.20 per month – was one of the lowest in Europe, and that a quarter of the license fee did not even go to ERT, but to a “green fund” set up by the Greek state, which in part funded private companies in the energy sector. The license fee levied for NERIT amounts to €3 per month, equivalent to the money paid for ERT once the “green fund” contribution is subtracted, only that this fee is paying for a national broadcaster that offers far fewer television and radio services and a far smaller staff than its predecessor.
As all of this has taken place, it is notable that no figures pertaining to the liquidation of ERT have been made public to this day, allowing the public to judge for themselves whether the shutdown of ERT and the launch of DT and later NERIT was, indeed, in the best economic interest of the country. What is known, however, is that unlike its privately-owned counterparts, ERT was profitable. According to ERT’s own financial figures, in 2011 it had pre-tax profits of €56.9 million, while in 2012, that figure was €36 million. It also paid €84 million in tax, insurance, and social security contributions to the Greek state.
This comes in contrast to the private media outlets, none of which are profitable but which are kept afloat through bank loans (from banks that have been recapitalized with taxpayer money), income from government advertising, and money saved from not paying legally required fees for the usage of the publicly-owned airwaves. Indeed, it can be said that the media outlets that were a drain on the Greek taxpayer were those that are privately-owned, not ERT. And yet, it is these privately-owned outlets that have benefitted financially from the shutdown of ERT and been granted the golden opportunity to further increase their influence over Greek society and public opinion.
What must be stressed though is that the shutdown of ERT was not merely an example of economic opportunism on the part of the Greek government, but also a deeply political move as well. The Greek government desperately wanted to create a new public broadcaster in name only, one which would be favorable towards and subservient to its policies. It likely believed that ERT’s unpopularity with some segments of Greece’s population, who, rightly or wrongly, considered ERT just another bloated and corrupt state organization, would have led to enough popular support for the shutdown to justify the move politically, in conjunction with the complacency with which the Greek populace was reacting to many of the government’s other unpopular moves.
Granting a nationwide digital broadcasting monopoly to DIGEA is, likewise, not merely an economic move, but a fundamentally political one as well, as the government is strongly pressured by the business moguls that operate the country’s major private media outlets, even as it relies upon the support of these outlets to help promote its policies to the public at large. As a result, the media choices available to Greek citizens have been further reduced further, while a profitable and historic national public broadcaster has been replaced by an entirely state-controlled national broadcaster offering fewer television and radio stations than its predecessor; which is not available in many areas within Greece; which offers little programming of note; and which in less than a year in operation has already been rocked by numerous economic and administrative scandals and resignations.
ERT was not without its many pathologies (many of which were inflicted by successive governments, including the one currently in power), but after its forced shutdown, the loser in this game of political and economic chess has been the Greek public, whose media choices and access to information have been reduced, at the expense of the interests of the country’s political and economic elite.