Wednesday, 19 June 2013

ERT Reveals the Fragility of Greek Politics and Free Journalism

This editorial was published by EnetEnglish.


Both the government and public sector employees have somehow come out of their battle for control of Hellenic Radio and Television, or ERT, worse off than they were before. Workers lost their fight to retain the status quo: in accordance with the incontestable ruling of the Council of State on Monday night, the government will be able to revamp the broadcaster as planned, shedding more than a thousand jobs; but  the ruling also forces it to restore ERT's signal until that job is completed at the end of the summer, which rubbishes the government's position that a vehicle cannot be fixed in transit.

A new spat now looms over whether the interim broadcasts will be carried out by the 2,700-employee behemoth or - the government's preference - a cut down task force of 200. But this is a rearguard action. What makes the battle of the past week important is that Prime Minister Antonis Samaras handled things the way he did, and this affects Greece's political future.

Socialist leader Evangelos Venizelos let the cat out of the bag on Sunday when he told Real newspaper that, "We knew Mr. Samaras' intention. He knew we completely disagreed." Venizelos, along with the smallest of the three coalition partners, Democratic Left's Fotis Kouvelis, assumed that the conservative prime minister wouldn't touch the broadcaster without what Venizelos calls "a parliamentary majority", by which he means the two junior partners' 42 seats. Without them, prime minister Antonis Samaras cannot rule.

In riding roughshod over his partners, Samaras took a calculated risk. He decided that once presented with a fait accompli, Venizelos and Kouvelis would ultimately buckle under rather than risk an election. Their approval ratings have fallen dramatically since they joined the yearling government, while New Democracy's have remained stable. Even if they did decide to enter a new parliament diminished, their prospects for an alliance with any of the opposition parties would be virtually nonexistent. Venizelos and Kouvelis are thus forced to eat at Samaras' table, even when his policies are slow-acting poison to them.

The dosage of this poison has increased sharply this year, as Samaras has decided to go head-to-head with one of the country's most intractable political problems - the overmanned public sector. To meet Greece's international obligations, he must shed 4,000 workers this year and 11,000 next year as part of a total of 150,000 job losses over four years. The government has a shortlist of some 250 organisations it is thinking of abolishing or merging in order to achieve this.

Naturally, Samaras has become stricter with all public workers and with unions. In January he commandeered striking striking workers in passenger shipping; in February Metro workers; and in May the enormous union of secondary school teachers, who were merely threatening to strike. The law he used in each case is a presidential decree that predates the constitution and was never elected through parliament. It is a procedure granting the government extraordinary powers in a time of national emergency. Unions call it undemocratic, but the public has largely supported the increasingly autocratic Samaras because it is fed up with public sector unions holding the country to ransom for raises and benefits.

The problem with Samaras' policy is that he is not a dexterous enough enforcer of it. Most Greeks understand the need for state payroll shrinkage; after all, the private sector has almost exclusively borne the burden of 1.3 million redundancies. But taking ERT off the air to restructure it was an action worthy of a putsch in the eyes of Greeks. Not having the overhaul plan ready to hand was simply incompetent. The arguments of government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou - that closure was the only way to clean house both financially and morally - were self contradictory and damaging because of the impotence they imply.

Samaras is likely to pull further and further apart from his partners as he comes into his own as prime minister and pursues his political self-interest of taking ownership of as much of the dissolving political centre as possible. There will be plenty of pressure for reform for years to come, and this is a powerful political alibi in a country veering sharply to the right, as reactionary as that shift may be to decades of leftism. Venizelos and Kouvelis can expect to be increasingly unhappy in this chain gang. They may at some point be expected to walk out, calculating that the compromises involved in following Thatcherite policies are a bigger existential threat than the risks of re-election. An unnecessary provocation of the public, like that over ERT, would likely spark such a departure. Greece should brace itself for a brief and rocky remainder of the first Samaras term in office, followed by political convulsions akin to those witnessed in back-to-back elections last year. Whether another pro-austerity government can be formed is a matter of speculation, and so is Greece's continued presence in the eurozone.

There is a second, equally important issue related to the political one arising from the battle for ERT. It is that raised by the government spokesman last week - the independence of the media. This is practically non-existent in Greece, squelched between two forces of almost geological strength - party politics and media owners' material interests. For all the tug-of-war about pluralism between ERT and the government, ERT has never been above the fray of influence peddling and this administration has not proven itself a friend of independent inquiry; on the contrary, its communications policy is stubbornly autistic and the government spokesman is at least partly to blame for this.

Still, if the government is to be taken at its word as wanting freedom of expression it needs to back this up with a series of indispensable actions. The government needs to monitor the airwaves it leases accordingly, through a truly independent radio and television council free of party appointees. All parties - including opposition parties - need to withdraw their appointees from journalism unions, which they dominate. Their presence turns each discussion into a question of balance between political forces. Journalists who shamelessly act as rapporteurs of party lines on evening newscasts in private media need to be stopped. Government ministries and banks need to take journalists off their payrolls, and the international media need to be viewed with less suspicion. Last but not least, Greece needs to find a way to prevent its media from being owned by those very contractors who bid for state- and EU-funded projects. The government of Kostas Karamanlis attempted the latter in January 2005 with a law that prevented media shareholders holding one percent and above from bidding for state projects, on the understanding that they would abuse their leverage. The European Commission struck this down as contrary to the free trade principles of the common market. It was a rare instance of Brussels being wrong when Greece was right. 

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