Is Greece's austerity push killing press freedom?

Harold Maass
The Week
Greeks say austerity measures have weakened a central pillar of democracy.

Workers walk off the job after the government shuts down state broadcaster ERT

Greek workers staged their third general strike of the year on Thursday, shutting down everything from tax offices to public transportation to protest the government's decision to close state broadcaster ERT. The country's main public TV station flickered out mid-broadcast late Tuesday, after the financially strapped government deemed it a hotbed of corruption and waste.

"At a time when the Greek people are enduring sacrifices, there is no room for delay, hesitation or tolerance for sacred cows," said government spokesman Simon Kedikoglou.

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Press groups in Greece and abroad couldn't disagree more. ERT news anchors refuse to leave, calling the move a "direct blow to democracy." International Press Institute Deputy Director Anthony Mills told New Zealand's Scoop that, if anything, Greeks need ERT now more than ever, as the country struggles to stave off financial collapse and climb out of a brutal recession. "At a time of national crisis," Mills said, "the Greek public... are being deprived of a crucial channel of information."

Greece is slashing spending and raising taxes to meet conditions of a European bailout. But leaders in other countries said the Greek government was going too far. The European Union said public broadcasting is "an integral part of European democracy," and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius questioned whether shutting down public TV and radio stations was the "right way to get people to love political decisions."

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The government is laying off ERT's 2,500 employees, and plans to let them apply for new jobs once a reformed, smaller state broadcaster is opened later this summer. In the meantime, Greeks will be left without one of their most reliable sources for in-depth news coverage. Six private stations, which blacked out their news broadcasts Wednesday in a show of solidarity with ERT, are widely believed to be biased in favor of the political views of their respective owners.

The government's move has left many people scratching their heads, since it risks creating problems bigger than any it might solve. Yiannis Baboulias at New Statesman suggested the government of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and his New Democracy party is trying to show it means business. "Recent government spin has claimed that Greece has seen off the worst of the economic crisis," he said, "but after a series of failed deals to privatize state assets... Samaras is desperate to show resolve." But Baboulias added that voters could make New Democracy pay the next time they go to the polls.

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But it is imperative we talk about why Europe still puts up with a government that has clearly lost its marbles when it comes to freedom of speech. ERT's rich history means ordinary people won't give it up easily, and its staff, finally liberated after receiving the final blow from a government that's been gunning for them every step of the way, are broadcasting vitriolic comments against New Democracy, naming names and scandals that previously they had been afraid to. [New Statesman]

Ironically, the move might also wind up costing the government money. ERT was financed with a fee tacked to Greek electric bills, and has been running a surplus for the last several years, although it is known as a place where politicians find jobs for relatives and supporters. But, according to Zero Hedge, the turmoil is pushing "the depressed country right back into crisis mode," and Greece's economy is only going to suffer as angry protesters vent their rage in the streets.

And who can blame them. With that last civilizational "premium" — free TV for all — gone, what else is there to do? [Zero Hedge]

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