It’s been almost one year and a half since the abrupt closure of the Greek Public Broadcaster (ERT) and five months since the launch of the new official Public Broadcaster of Greece (NERIT), and the audience in Greece is still on a perpetual quest to find the true meaning of the role of Greek public television. The rationale behind this governmental decision was that it formed part of the “national effort to cut down on public spending and meet the terms of Greece’s bailout deal”.
The Greek Prime Minister’s statement that described ERT as a “typical example of the unique lack of transparency“and a “haven of waste” was very characteristic in this regard. According to the Greek government, the reestablishment of the Public Broadcaster was based on the necessity of creating a new, contemporary, totally independent organization, free from corruption and waste of money, staffed with new personnel that were recruited on merit.
Noteworthy is the fact that the latest developments inside the Greek Public Broadcaster are not consistent with these ambitious claims. This became clear at the beginning of September 2014 with the resignations of NERIT’s CEO Antonis Makrydimitris, his deputy Rodolfos Moronis and Christos Chomenidis, another member of the supervisory board. These three members submitted their resignations just four months after Antonis Makrydimitris replaced the former president, George Prokopakis, at the helm of the organization.
At the beginning of October 2014, another departure suggested that there was a “chain reaction”. Another member of the supervisory council of NERIT, Andreas Zoulas, handed in his resignation in protest to alleged government intervention in the operation of the state broadcaster.
All the resigned members of NERIT’s councils justified their decision citing government interference in matters that should be the responsibility of an independent Public Broadcaster. The resigned members’ statements and their posts on social media were perceived by the public as a characteristic form of protest to the political leadership that was responsible for installing NERIT’s board and directors. Rodolfos Moronis, in an effort to send a resounding message, posted on Twitter that “if you declare that you want to create something independent, objective and of good quality but you don’t mean it, don’t assign the job to someone who does”. Defending the actions of NERIT’s resigned members, Andreas Zoulas claimed that it was the duty of those on NERIT’S board to “do our legally imposed duty and condemn government interventions and the unacceptable conditions of operation at NERIT”. Christos Chomenidis voiced his concerns about the independence of the board and suggested that it was being undermined by “decisions taken elsewhere, by others”.
The mass departure of NERIT board members last month throws into question the crucial issue of the function and role of the Public Broadcaster in Greece. According to Article 15 of the Greek Constitution, Public Television in Greece is obliged to serve the following objectives: objectivity and impartiality in news broadcast, high-quality products, contribution to cultural development, and protection of social coherence.
As NERIT receives its revenues from a state fee that all Greek citizens pay through their electricity bills, it cannot belong to any political party and cannot serve political interests. The Public Broadcaster should maintain its independence and function as a medium of social expression and freedom of speech.
NERIT began its broadcast in a wave of optimism and with the purpose of reforming television in Greece. At the beginning of May 2014, the new Board of Directors set out to reform the television programme of the two national channels, to gain access to satellite transmission frequencies, to see through the internal reorganisation of the Public Broadcaster and to recruit new personnel. Unfortunately, none of the above objectives were achieved. A typical example of the inflexibility that exists in the way NERIT functions is the fact that a whole month is needed from the moment of the final approval of recruitment until the time an employee starts working. In the meantime, NERIT is functioning under temporary management.
The volatile situation of NERIT is enhanced by the recent decision of the Council of State that the establishment of a Public Broadcaster in Greece is not obligatory. According to the law, it would be sufficient if only private television existed in Greece, as long as there is a kind of state supervision. Moreover, the legal establishment of both the Supervisory Board and the Board of Directors in NERIT legitimizes two “power centres” and creates fertile ground for frictions and disagreements. In addition to that, a recent amendment in the law regarding NERIT and approved by the majority of the 2nd Consecutive Composition of the Summer Recess Parliamentary Section, makes sure that one of the aforementioned “power centres”, the Supervisory Board, will be designated by the Greek government.
The current upheaval in NERIT sparked off criticism but Parliament’s institutions and transparency committee turned down the opportunity to investigate the resignations. The New Democracy-PASOK majority on the committee voted against probing the resignations, while all the opposition parties bar Golden Dawn voted in favour of an investigation. Members of the governing parties dismissed SYRIZA’s request for a probe as an attempt to ratchet up political tension.
The objections to the new amendment regarding NERIT were strong and came from a large number of sources. Of course, this law required lengthy procedures in order to be implemented. But, in any case, the adequate solution for the reforming of the Greek Public Broadcaster is not “invasion” through governmental control. Therefore, the Supervisory Board should be appointed by an institution with a representative character rather than by the governmental majority which implies full governmental intervention in the public audiovisual field in Greece.
The reform of the Greek Public TV Broadcaster seems to be a distant goal, posing the question if it is possible to be achieved. Until the accomplishment of this goal, NERIT will be just one more TV station riddled by controversy in the Greek audiovisual landscape. As it seems, no willingness is visible at the horizon in terms of reform. We are in the middle of a period of specious reality. And a glaring example of that is the case of the Greek Public Broadcaster. If our objective is to redefine the role of public television in Greece, we have to be able to amalgamate the old with the new. Despite the belief that the viewers have the potential of choice through their remote control, television has and will always have a uniquely strong asset: its ability to penetrate our homes without asking for permission. For that reason, the public broadcaster is not entitled to exclude, to censor, to turn its back on the “new”, to ignore the truth, to manipulate and be manipulated, to marginalize people and points of view and to function under unclear circumstances.
Katerina Serafeim holds a PhD in Journalism and Mass Media, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and works as a journalist in the Press Office of the Regional Local Government of Central Macedonia,Greece. She can be reached on email@example.com.