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Why closing Greek broadcaster is make or break moment

By Sophia Ignatidou, Special for CNN
June 14, 2013 -- Updated 0945 GMT (1745 HKT)
Employees secure a protest banner at the headquarters of the Greek public broadcaster ERT on June 13, 2013 in Athens.
Employees secure a protest banner at the headquarters of the Greek public broadcaster ERT on June 13, 2013 in Athens.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Shutdown of Greek broadcaster ERT sparks protests
  • Sophia Ignatidou says shutdown was met with mixed feelings
  • Democracy is being questioned in the country once deemed its "cradle"
  • Ignatidou: Switching off state broadcaster will only exacerbate problems

Editor's note: Sophia Ignatidou is a journalist and assistant online editor for The Wire magazine; her work has appeared in The Sunday Times, The Independent, The Guardian, Eleftherotypia, Ta Nea, Kathimerini and various other media in Greece and in the UK. Follow her on Twitter.

(CNN) -- The irony was not lost on most viewers of the Greek Prime Minister's statements as he replied to the public outcry over the hasty shutdown of ERT, the country's national broadcaster, with the immediate layoff of over 2,600 employees. Like a wolf in sheep's clothing, Antonis Samaras was chastising a system that his own New Democracy party had helped to ingrain in Greek society and political life.

Speaking at an award ceremony organized by the Athens Chamber Of Commerce And Industry (EVEA), he labeled ERT a "symbol of corruption and waste," and claimed it "controlled the flow of information without any accountability." Constantly repeating righteous keywords such as "transparency," he tried to justify his decision to pull the plug on ERT's national and regional TV channels and radio stations around the country, which Greek taxpayers had been paying for for the past 75 years.

Newly-unemployed former ERT employees rebutted these attacks by issuing a statement revealing publically what had been common knowledge in Greece's journalistic circles: the final word always lies with the heads of the organization -- appointed by Mr Samaras.

Sophia Ignatidou
Sophia Ignatidou

Namely, they pointed out "it was the General Director of ERT Emilios Liatsos who decided that the anniversary of the Paraskinio newspaper was more newsworthy than the tortures at GADA." Last October, in an article that led Greek Public Order Minister Nikos Dendrias to threaten the Guardian with legal action, anti-fascist protesters claimed they had been tortured by the police at the Attica General Police Directorate (GADA). The GADA denied the claims.

Back then, the government that now champions transparency, went so far as to suspend ERT's morning show hosts, Kostas Arvanitis and Marilena Katsimi for criticising Dendrias's response to the incident.

Only after this week's announcement of ERT's closure, under a Presidential Decree, did its employees feel free to broadcast uncensored. Only in the final hours before the shutdown was economist and writer Yiannis Varoufakis able to reveal on TV that he had been banned from that very channel for two years, and that on one of his appearances, TV presenter Elli Stai had asked him not to mention the words "debt restructuring."

Of course, a portion of the public were aware of government-imposed censorship, and some even endorsed Samaras' recent drastic move. But in a country where unemployment has reached a record 27.4 per cent and cronyism has been the rule of the day for decades, it's slightly naïve to believe the coalition government leader's claims of cleansing and of a will to reinstate transparency.

The shutdown was met with mixed feelings, not just among the viewers but also among the journalists themselves, with some complaining about ERT's lack of support towards the rest of the media world that had been facing layoffs and company closures for more than three years. "The journalists should have already revolted on behalf of the pensioners," one commentator said.

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This attack on freedom of speech, still reverberating in the Greek and international press, has also divided the fragile coalition government itself. The leaders of the other two junior coalition parties, PASOK and Democratic Left, say they oppose Samaras' decision, but are open to a reasonable compromise. The New Democracy leader needs their support for his decision to become law -- the alternative will render the coalition unsustainable. PASOK leader Evangelos Venizelos said his party "doesn't want elections, but we're not afraid of them either."

Speculations about an imminent general election is already circulating in the Greek press, but Venizelos and Democratic Left leader Fotis Kouvelis' need to cling to power is likely to make them go along with Samaras' decision.

They might try to buy time, since at the moment international attention and support for ERT is overwhelming. The absolutist way in which Samaras chose to act on his decision triggered a media revolt which was long overdue, with blogs, websites and EBU streaming ERT's service online.

Reporters Without Borders' executive director Christophe Deloire deplored the closure, explaining that such media shutdowns are "usual in dictatorships and rare in democratic countries."

The question of whether Greece, formerly known as the cradle of democracy, still lives up to the title is a persistent one. What is certain is that the current form of democracy is deeply flawed and, unsurprisingly enough, the media and the way they have operated for decades are part of the problem.

But switching off the state broadcaster will only exacerbate the problems, derailing democracy.

A publicly-funded broadcaster is by definition crucial to media pluralism, simply because it doesn't have to make the financial choices privately-funded ones face -- especially in a country where the owners of private media firms are business magnates, whose aim is to influence the political world.

Samaras and his coalition partners lack any credibility that would make a cleansing of the organisation possible. The Greek PM might claim he wants to get rid of the "corrupt" and "sinful" ERT only to establish a new, efficient organisation with only 1,000 employees, but the question is, given the track record of his party, who believes him?

"We have a short span memory, we Greeks," he said last Wednesday. He must surely hope so.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of Sophia Ignatidou.

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