Thursday, 13 June 2013

The Latest Act of the Greek Tragedy: Public Broadcasters and European Democracy

Last Tuesday I went to see Before Midnight in the cinema. I loved the fact that it was filmed in the Southern Peloponnese, and when I come back home, I realize that ERT - the Greek television and radio broadcaster - is closed. Some times ago we were saying here in this blog that the crisis is not over despite what the head of the Greek government was saying. Once again events are proving us right.

As shocked as many other people, I immediately reacted on the spot to share my disagreement. The comment caused some of my Facebook friends to point out that I should get myself informed about the wages of the people in ERT and how ERT has been continually wasting Greek state funds. I have many feelings on this event that I will try to share here as clearly as possible. On the one side you need to understand that I am part of the Greek diaspora, being born and raised in Brussels and that I therefore have a particularly emotional attachment to ERT. I will thus argue why it is important to for Greece to have a public broadcaster.

Fired ERT employees
Today I am a 25 year old greek who has lived all her life outside Greece. However, when I go to Greece no one can tell. I speak, read and write Greek fluently and I understand all Greek cultural references. Why is that? My parents of course, we spoke Greek at home and they also insisted on the fact that my brother and I go to Greek school as kids. Like all kids we hated it, but at the end of the day I am so grateful to my parents for forcing us to go, because Greek school was an important factor in the construction of my Greek identity. But there would have been no Greek school without the Greek state which funds Greek teachers in countries where there is a big Greek community. Without this service, me and my brother would not consider ourselves Greek today.

The same happens for the Greek broadcaster ERT. I remember the first time we watched Greek TV in Belgium: I was so exited that I was gonna be able to watch TV in Greek like I did during my holidays. Of course I was quickly disappointed because the series I used to watch were broadcasted by private channels. But as I grew up I became more and more interested in Greek public life and ERT was definitely a part of it. Without it I would not have been able to follow the debates that were going on in Greece, as in my house we did not get a computer until I was 17. So as a part of the Greek diaspora, ERT has been for years the link between me and Greece, a link that has now come to disappear. Of course internet is here and I have the possibility to get informed through it. But don’t forget that I am fluent in Greek, which is not the case for the entire Greek diaspora, and all those people who sometimes are further away than I am from Greece, won’t have the possibility to perpetuate their link with Greece. But this is not the first case where the Greek state has completely ignored its immigrant communities. Greeks who leave abroad cannot vote in Greek national elections, they have pay money to take a plane and go to Greece if they want to vote.

What shocked me the most in all this story is the lack of public debate on the issue, not even in the Greek Parliament. The whole thing was decided though a ministerial ruling that did not need to go through the Greek Parliament. I am not an expert on Greek public law, but when I was studying Belgian public law they taught us that a ministerial ruling is supposed to help the implementation of a law that was passed through the Parliament. I still struggle to understand the logic behind shutting down ERT. I doubt that the government would close the Greek public electricity provider (ΔΕΗ) or the water provider (ΕΥΔΑΠ) so abruptly - it would create chaos in Greece. So on Tuesday the Greek government decided that the right to information was a secondary right of Greek citizens at the moment, thereby de facto bringing the country 30 years back. The governments leaves the right to information to private interests because what is left today in Greece are private channel and radios whose main aim is entertainment.

From the reactions in the international media, but also by Greeks in Greece and abroad it looks like the government underestimated the importance of its public broadcaster. In fact, I believe that every democratic country should have a public broadcaster that reflects the public interests. The Lisbon Treaty agrees with me, stating that “the system of public broadcasting in the Member States is directly related to the democratic, social and cultural needs of each society and to the need to preserve media pluralism.” But I will make a small clarification because I read somewhere that shutting down ERT is against the Lisbon Treaty. It is not. What the Lisbon Treaty says is that the Member States have the right to finance a public broadcaster as long as it does not go against the rules of trade and competition of the EU. Basically what it means is that the European Commission did not have the right to ask the Greek government to close ERT. That is why yesterday the spokesperson of the Commission made clear that the EC never asked such a thing from the Greek government. That would have been against the Treaties.

Now what the Greek government has been saying all this time is that ERT did not reflect the public interest and was a nod of clientelism and corruption, which drained the state finance. Well with that definition in mind I can think of some other Greek institutions that need to be shut down. For example today the Greek Parliament has 300 parliamentarians; for a country of 10 million people it is way too much. Why not cut their number in half??

Anyway, once again it seems that this 'euro crisis' has set a bad precedent in European politics that undermines the supposedly democratic features of Greece and of the European Union. But what also pisses me off the most is that now international media are shocked by what is happening in Greece. This 360 degree turn of discourse in the media, comes a bit late. Well, but better late than never...

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