The Loud Silence
It is October 2014, and a blurry image of Gioula Sardeli tracks across my computer screen. Her voice arrives in chunks. She is relaying messages from her friend and colleague, Maria Tomara, who is busy in the kitchen dying her hair. Tomara, a radio journalist from Kalamata, Greece, is preparing for an upcoming press conference with the European Parliament in Brussels dubbed as, “ERT: No Signal, No Democracy in Greece.”
Tomara enters the frame, and the Skype window explodes with fragmented silver pixels. Tomara laughs at her own image. Her hair is wrapped in aluminum foil, and a towel rests across her shoulders.
“See what they have done!” she says. “I can’t afford to go to the hairdresser anymore. I do it here in my kitchen!”
For 20 years, Tomara had worked for Ellinikí Radiofonía Tileórasi, or ERT, the station that was once to Greece what BBC is to Britain and NPR is to the United States. The press conference was arranged by Sofia Sakorafa, a Greek member of the European Parliament, to perhaps spur some international sympathy and address the state of public broadcasting in Greece — or, rather, the lack of it.
In 1938, Greece’s first national radio broadcast ambled onto the Athens airwaves. Over more than seven decades, ERT expanded to include five television channels, 29 radio stations (including the only nationwide broadcast), a website, a magazine, an orchestra and the country’s oldest and most extensive digital archive.
Around 3 p.m. on June 11, 2013, the Greek government announced it was shutting it all down. Hours later, the five television stations cut to black. Radio towers across the nation fell like dominoes. The websites Ert.gr, ert3.gr and voiceofgreece.gr disappeared from the Greek internet registry. All 2,656 workers who manned these outlets were laid off.
In an afternoon, Greece’s oldest and largest public broadcasting station, a 75-year legacy, was crumpled up and pitched.
“The government that has done this is still in power here,” Tomara tells me. “It is a bullshit government. They will not change anything.” What she wants more than anything is the chance to tell her story. “We just want the support of other countries to put pressure on the Greek government. To do so, we have to be heard. People should hear for themselves what we have been through."
Since the 2009 economic collapse, Greece has been climbing a steep mountainside of loans. By 2013, it was teetering atop €240 billion of debt. To receive the funds from the “troika,” the group of international creditors, the Greek government attempted a risky descent on ropes of economic austerity. But the weight of a nation was too much; to lighten the load, citizens would have to take the plunge.
In April 2013, against a backdrop of violent anti-austerity protests and the European Union’s highest unemployment rate, 26.8 percent, the Greek parliament passed a bill laying off 15,000 government employees. The plan was presented to the lenders to secure €7.5 billion more in aid money by the end of June.
“Samaras wanted to show a good profile to the troika and Angela Merkel,” Sardeli, a radio DJ also from Kalamata, says. “He wanted to show that here in Greece, we are making radical changes.”
The government said the cuts would be targeted to “disciplinary cases and cases of demonstrated incapacity, absenteeism and poor performance.”
Prime Minister Antonis Samaras told the BBC that he was “pleased” by the government effort, and that it comes as a surprise to him that such taboos surround cutting “people who underperform.”
On the morning of the closure, Tomara went to work at 9 a.m. to deliver her daily two-hour newscast at ERT’s station in Kalamata, a midsize city in southern Greece that fronts the bright blue Messenian Gulf. The transmission was broadcast, she says, “no problem.” But by noon, rumors began to circulate online that “something bad is going to happen,” she says. “No one really believed the rumors.”
That afternoon, government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou sent the station a pre-recorded video announcement. Journalists, broadcasters and technicians clustered around the studios’ in-house monitors and faced Kedikoglou, who stood at a podium against a solemn blue backdrop.
“When the Greek people have to make sacrifices, there is no margin for delay or hesitation,” Kedikoglou said flatly. Footage shot by SBS Australia shows ERT workers in an Athens studio, their brows furrowed and arms tightly folded across their chests. “There is no margin for tolerance of sacred cows that remain untouched,” he continued. “You motherfucker,” an Athens employee grumbled.
As word of the station’s shutdown spread, people all over Greece — Athens, Kalamata, Patras, Trikala, Thessaloniki — from all kinds of jobs and political parties, went to the local stations to protest and show their support for the workers and the journalists.
For the rest of the afternoon and early evening, stations remained online. Reporters on air chatted uneasily as protest activities raged outside. “They were saying, ‘We’re here. We’re waiting for something to happen. We don’t know what will happen,’” Tomara says.
Then, at about 11 p.m., a reporter in conversation began a sentence, and the end of it never aired. With an abruptness typical of the events of the day, the signal just stopped. TV screens cut to black.
Work crews across the country physically severed fiber optic lines feeding television and radio signals. A few days later, police forces raided and disassembled the mountaintop transmission facilities in Athens and Thessaloniki. The government ordered Greece’s largest telecommunications company to shut off the station’s phone and internet service.
“The telephone number of the station was removed, like it never existed,” Tomara says.
Shock paralyzed the station, but not in the way the government had expected. Unsure of what else to do, in Athens and in other stations around the country, journalists and technicians refused to leave.
Fouli Lagiou, a radio broadcaster in Kalamata, awoke the next morning and headed to the station as usual, “just to see what happens,” she says. “And then we went again the next morning. And the next. And the next.”
The EBU — the European Broadcasting Union — brought in equipment and technical assistance so ERT could deliver its signal over satellite radio and internet live streams. The pirate station took on a new name, ERT Open.
It has been nearly two years since those first few mornings, and Lagiou and the others still go back. Every morning.
“My first cell phone bill after the shutdown was over €200,” Tomara says. “We were using our personal phones to run the station.”
Jean-Paul Phillippot, the president of the EBU, and Ingrid Deltenre, the director general, sent a letter to Samaras demanding he revoke the decision. “The existence of public service media and their independence from government lie at the heart of democratic societies,” they said. Such far-reaching decisions should be made “after an open and inclusive democratic debate … not through a simple agreement between two government ministers.”
The government defended its move by claiming there was too much secrecy at ERT. Officials said the internal structure was corrupt. They said the finances were mismanaged. They said these things after the station was already gone.
But they have not provided a full accounting of any corruption or mismanagement. “They don’t tell anything. We don’t see any official admission,” Sardeli says. “So yeah, let’s talk about secrecy.”
In Kedikoglou’s doomsday recording, he introduced an impending replacement network, the New Hellenic Radio, Internet and Television, NERIT. He said it would have a leaner staff, smaller budget and more transparent hiring processes.
Television screens remained black for 28 days. Then on July 10, 2013, a temporary filler station, called DT, came on the air. Its first broadcast was an old Greek movie from ERT’s archive.
While DT scrambled along the sidelines, pumping itself up into NERIT, ERT Open stayed on the field. Broadcasts continued over the radio and internet. The cheering had quieted, the protests had died down, but it was obvious the crowd was still there.
Later that year, journalists from ERT were invited to apply for jobs at NERIT. Fouli says it was “like somebody goes around saying terrible things about you and then invites you over for a drink.”
Despite their high spirits when they spoke with me in October, Tomara and Sardeli had low expectations about the conference in Brussels, where they were to address the European Parliament.
Representatives in Brussels were excited about ERT Open. One MEP called it “a historical experiment showing that the medium can and should be open to society.” But as long as Samaras’ center-right New Democracy party was in power, it was going to cling to its economic austerity policies. As long as Samaras was in control, many ERT journalists expected no changes.
“In Greece these matters involve a very long process,” Sardeli says. “Things do not happen from one day to another.”
The rapid rise of Greece’s radical left turned that upside down. For almost a decade, the loose, five-party coalition known as Syriza had barely ever gained more than 5 percent of the popular vote. Suddenly, in 2012, Syriza received the second-largest proportion of popular votes, second only to the incumbent New Democracy party.
The following year, just as ERT was being shut down, the coalition held its first congress as a united party. In his introductory speech, party leader Alexis Tsipras spoke aggressively against bailout conditions that were destroying Greece’s public sector. He located the struggle of the ERT workers in “a wider uncompromising struggle for the defense of democracy and social cohesion.” He committed his newly formed party to the network’s cause. “We will be together in their struggle till the end,” he said, “militantly, peacefully, unwaveringly.”
On Jan. 25, Syriza was elected to power, and Tsipras became Greece’s new head of state. A Syriza member of parliament, Zoe Konstantopoulou, confirmed the party’s commitment to re-opening ERT by visiting ERT Open headquarters in an act of solidarity “to the people who are struggling against policies of poverty and censorship.”
Regardless of what the new government will do for ERT, the station has already become a symbol that transcends the politics that govern it, or fail to. The ERT shutdown was a strong message from the institutions that ordered it, and the creation of ERT Open was a stronger response: that media and reporting belong to no institution.
“The closure was something that does not fit with the Greek soul,” Sardeli says. “The Greek soul is free, it is liberal. ERT is and was a voice of the people, and we want it back.”
Originally published in Latterly.