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EBU steps in to save Greek state broadcasting

The EBU set up a makeshift SNG unit in Athens to maintain basic TV service after the abrupt closure of state broadcaster ERT by the Greek government.

At the same time, the EBU put pressure on the Greek government to restore public service broadcasting immediately, retaining the 2700 staff that had been fired at a stroke. The government has agreed to restore broadcasting under a new unit that was christened NERIT (New Hellenic Radio Internet Television), but may have to change name because amid the confusion it forgot to register the domain name. In the event, somebody else quickly registered it on June 12 in the hope of making a fast buck, but in may be that the government decides on a different acronym, even if the title is retained.

The speedy establishment of the new unit represents a partial climbdown by the Greek government, but it will still be a slimmed down entity with fewer staff. Meanwhile, the closure of ERT has sparked protests and riots around the country, with heavy police presence around ERT’s Athens headquarters, where the EBU SNG unit is stationed, as well as in the country’s second city, Thessaloniki.

The EBU said it was shocked by the suddenness of the ERT closure, and that it was standing by the broadcasters and journalists who had been sacked. A spokesman stated that at times of crisis the need for independent and impartial news coverage free from commercial considerations was increased not diminished. The EBU expressed its "profound dismay" over the closure in a letter to Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras signed by its president Jean Paul Philipott and Director General Ingrid Deltenre. The EBU then upped the ante further on June 14 when Philipott, flanked by Deltenre, told the Greek Government at a live televised press conference in Athens that it must urgently restore its public broadcaster ERT to air in the name of democracy and pluralism.

Yet, it appears that the ERT closure was a direct response to the Greek economic crisis, although it is not proving as soft as target as the government had anticipated. Journalists, in general, may be as unpopular as politicians in Greece, but the state broadcaster itself is still seen as a bastion of free speech, and its closure has elicited particularly strong reaction among the influential classes and led to strikes that brought traffic to a standstill. The government attempted to portray the ERT closure as an inevitable response to deal with an institution that had become bloated, corrupt and highly inefficient, with the leading party in the ruling coalition, the conservative New Democracy (ND), insisting that the broadcaster was a rotten apple, suffering from chronic mismanagement, lack of transparency and waste. However, leading unions described the closure of ERT as more like a “coup-like move to gag unbiased information."

The Greek government is also attempting divert some responsibility for ERT’s closure onto the international lenders that have provided a bailout to stave off bankruptcy for the country, but this suggestion has been refuted by one of the major parties — the EU itself. The EU’s commissioner for monetary affairs, Ollie Rehn, said it had not requested the state broadcaster be closed down as a condition of the Greek bailout program.

The government stated immediately after the closure that it wanted a new slimmed down operation to have a budget of just €100 million a year, less than one-third the current €328m funded by a €51 per household levy on energy bills. Such a Draconian cut is now unlikely to be sustained, with both trade unions and the EBU disputing the government’s claim that through efficiency gains this would still be adequate to maintain a similar level of service.