Reclaiming the Signal

A Pirate Broadcaster Fights to Stay on Air in Greece

Reclaiming the Signal

On June 11th 2013, as part of nation-wide, post-crisis austerity measures, the Greek government decreed that the Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation (ERT) was to be shut down. All across Greece, televisions that had been tuned in to the public broadcaster suddenly displayed black screens, the journalists on air cut off mid-sentence. But the staff of ERT3, a municipal branch in Thessaloniki, refused to stay quiet. They occupied the studios for over two years and battled every day to stay on air. Journalists Kirsten Han and Calum Stuart have been documenting the story since it broke back in 2013.

As the crackly Skype connection miraculously held, we watched our friend Asteris Masouras stalk the streets of Thessaloniki in search of a light for his cigarette. “You should come up here,” he said to us. “This is where the real social experiment is happening.” We had recently arrived in Athens, two young journalists in search of a story, with no idea his words would lead us to a small television station in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki again and again over the next two years.

The headquarters of ERT3 — the regional television channel that covers northern Greece for the country’s public broadcaster, ERT — was bustling the night we arrived in July 2013. The road was closed; blocked off by the milling crowd of supporters. Floodlights lit the street where pensioners sat on plastic chairs, waiting for an emo-rock band to set up on a makeshift stage that had been hastily erected on the cracked pavement outside the building. The doors of ERT3 were flung open, journalists and cameramen who spilled out from within were taking photos, shooting B-roll and speaking to their supporters.

The music and flurry of activity had the appearance of a spontaneous festival, but ERT3 hummed with a nervous energy. Several riot trucks were parked just down the street, and police officers in bulletproof vests casually lounged nearby. In response, cars and vans marked with the ERT logo were parked diagonally across the compound’s gates. A passing journalist nodded toward the cars and said, “Know why they’re parked like that? So the police can’t drive in if they raid the building.” It wasn’t a celebration; it was a protest, and what would eventually turn into a two-year-long occupation.

* * * *

ERT began as a radio broadcaster in 1938, eventually expanding to include television programming in 1966. It had survived wars — including the Nazi occupation — and a military dictatorship. At the time of the closure, ERT encompassed not just radio and television news, but also children’s programming, a radio symphony orchestra, a contemporary orchestra and a chorus. In a single moment, on June 11 2013, over 2,600 employees were left jobless.

In the lead up to the ERT closure, Greece had endured crisis after crisis. After joining the Eurozone in 2001, Greek politicians had over-borrowed and fudged the numbers. Mass over-spending ensued, from the US$11 billion spent on the Athens Olympics in 2004 — which included the building of new facilities to accommodate visitors — to the inflated salaries of political cronies and appointees.

By 2010, it had become impossible to hide the immense amount of national debt that had been accrued — about US$430 million. The European Commission, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Central Bank (ECB) — collectively known as the troika — responded to a request for an international bailout, loaning Greece US$147 billion in May 2010. A second bailout worth US$170 billion was granted in 2012. But this assistance came with strings attached: the Greek government was required to implement austerity measures by cutting pensions and wages, downsizing the public sector and raising taxes. Large-scale anti-austerity protests — some of which led to clashes between protesters and riot police — did little to stem the tide.

It was in this environment of ever-increasing cuts that ERT found itself at the receiving end of the axe. In a terse statement, the government’s spokesperson, Simos Kedikoglou, referred to corruption, cronyism and waste of public funds as reasons for the surprise decree. At a time of financial meltdown, the government asserted, Greece could not afford to waste a cent. The suddenness of ERT’s shutdown sparked a multitude of theories among the Greek people, ranging from a government conspiracy to extend total control over the media agenda to a promise to the troika to fire 2,000 civil servants that summer. No one had a definitive answer, but no one was buying the official government line, either.

Before the closure, ERT was not known to be, as Greeks put it, “the best shop in town”. In many ways the organisation operated as a microcosm of the wider Greek state: parties in power would appoint their cronies to the station, paying them inflated salaries to keep an eye on newsrooms and influence the editorial line. Staff we spoke to during the occupations in both Athens and Thessaloniki spoke of “consultants” who would pop up in the office, often with little to no experience in journalism. These people would proceed to tell editors how stories should be covered, and it was widely suspected that they reported newsroom chatter back to their political masters. Even the enraged ERT journalists took a moment to appreciate the irony: Kedikoglou, who spoke so firmly against corruption within the broadcaster, had himself been an ERT employee appointed and essentially given tenure at a time when his father was a member of parliament.

ERT’s headquarters in Athens a month after the sudden closure in 2013
ERT’s headquarters in Athens a month after the sudden closure in 2013

Still, some Greeks preferred ERT to the alternative: commercial media outlets owned by business magnates motivated by their own agendas and backroom political dealings. In a media environment lacking ideal options, ERT was often the least offensive choice. “Most of us grew up at best mistrusting it [ERT] and at worst loathing it [ERT], as a propaganda instrument of the state,” wrote economics professor Yanis Varoufakis in his blog a few days after the shutdown. “Yet, once a torrent of commercial media was unleashed in the 1990s… ERT’s stale, old-fashioned ways, while never loved, provided a kind of anchor in a sea of lifestyle vulgarity.”

Varoufakis had been blacklisted by ERT in 2011 after his repeated criticism of the international bailouts drew the ire of the governmnent. But still, he strongly opposed the shutdown. “For whatever the faults of our public broadcaster, however suggestible its producers may be to government officials, our public media are… [o]ur only possibility of programs that are provided for their contents’ worth, packing values that are irreducible to prices and advertising revenues,” he also wrote on his blog.

Supported by Greeks who were outraged by the lack of public — or even parliamentary — consultation, ERT staff across the country refused to stop working. With help from the European Broadcasting Union, they continued to broadcast online and via satellite. In Athens, the ERT orchestra played every night outside the broadcaster’s national headquarters. Journalists kept up daily news bulletins and talk shows as programmers scrambled to line up re-runs of old documentaries and archival material to keep their broadcast going 24/7.

* * * *

Inside the ERT3 building in Thessaloniki back in 2013, the staff had hunkered down at their workstations in defiance of the shutdown. Maria Tsakiri, who had been the chief press officer, was among them. She was not how one would imagine a press officer: soft-spoken but passionate, she spoke with a sincerity and openness that seemed at odds with the crafting of carefully-worded press releases. She had given almost two decades of her life to the broadcaster. When asked about her feelings about the shutdown, she fell silent. Then she said, very softly, “Have you ever lost someone you loved? It’s like that. I cannot believe it. I don’t want to believe it.”

The closure had been devastating for the staff, but had also become the perfect opportunity to tear up the rulebook and start again. All the political appointees had melted away with the closure; there was no point working at or spying on an organization that was officially declared defunct. The result was a newfound sense of freedom. Following the shutdown, ERT3 journalists acted accordingly, calling out political corruption and hypocrisy, taking on the establishment in a war of words.

With a smaller number of staff and very little international media attention, ERT3 relied on the local community for support. Rather than political scandal, ERT3 was interested in big questions — the kind of questions that their viewers found important like: What would happen if Greece left the Eurozone and went back to the drachma? How much of Greece’s national assets should be privatized in an effort to raise money for its debts? These questions had never been adequately addressed in Greek media, so ERT3 took a leap: they handed the microphone to their viewers.

“Every night we have a show outside the building,” said Alexandros Kanter Bax, ERT3’s director of television. “We give the microphone to the people, and they talk about the issues that they want to discuss. We air this program live, so they know they have a voice.”

He shrugged. “At first we had some people who were just wanted to shout, but people now carry out very good discussions on austerity, on water privatization. It’s a chance for them to talk about the problems that affect their lives, that the media usually won’t touch. People want to talk.”

He leaned back in his office chair, exhausted. A stout man with graying hair, Alexandros had been with ERT3 ever since the regional channel was launched in 1987. “We built this, brick by brick,” he said, explaining why he and so many of his staff — including his wife, a journalist and news anchor — were refusing to give up without a fight. “It’s not just about us,” he said. “It’s about Greece and the crisis. I am only one of over a million unemployed Greeks. This is austerity.”

An ERT3 journalist moderates a panel on race and immigration in Greece during the occupation in July 2013
An ERT3 journalist moderates a panel on race and immigration in Greece during the occupation in July 2013

Eleftheria Farantaki and her husband Dimitrios Malakasis sat tucked in a small office crammed with office desks and computers with chunky processing units. They were one of ERT3’s many couples, one of the many families who had lost both incomes overnight. Petite but tough-as-nails, Eleftheria had been in charge of new media and graphics at ERT3, but she has a new role as the de-facto representative of ERT3, and had been in Athens to speak at a press conference held by the broadcaster’s union. “Her name, Eleftheria, in Greek, it means ‘freedom’,” someone told us with a smile.

At the next desk, Dimitrios was frowning at something on one of his three computer screens. Sipping absent-mindedly on an iced coffee, one would never have guessed he and his workstation acted as the beating heart of ERT3’s occupation. After the authorities cut off some of ERT3’s phone lines and wifi connection, Dimitrios was the one who managed to get things up and running again, setting up a live stream so the occupation could broadcast online around-the-clock. He also managed to get the station on to a satellite network, and stayed at his desk all hours of the day to keep it that way.

Bristling with anger at the government’s allegation that ERT staff were overpaid, he pulled a crumpled slip of paper out of his pocket. It was his last pay slip; he had been paid 900€ (US$1,178) that month. “I carry this with me now,” he said, “so if people say we were corrupt, that we were taking too much money, I can show them and they can see.”

* * * *

A year later, in July of 2014, the streets of Thessaloniki were quiet. The sun beat down. A year since the shutdown, ERT3 seemed impossibly solemn. The stage, the sound system and floodlights were all gone, along with the supporters and spectators. The European Broadcasting Union’s support, too, had been withdrawn. Maria Tsakiri pushed open the door, propping it open for us as we entered the darkened interior of ERT3. It was stuffy and musty inside; many of the lights and air-conditioning units were broken, with no one left to fix them.

The ERT3 team had shrunk considerably during the now year-long occupation, having changed from a group of over two hundred angry staff members to approximately sixty-five exhausted workers. Losses included Alexandros Kanter Bax, who a year before had been so fierce and determined, but had found himself with no choice but to uproot his family and move to London in search of work.

Despite the exhaustion, the remaining sixty-five employees showed no signs of slowing down. A large collage pasted along one wall showed the highlights of the achievements from the past year — photos demonstrating the coverage of local events and protests hung alongside photos of when the station members ran in a marathon in Thessaloniki while wearing shirts upon which “ERT OPEN” (the name of the website from which they broadcast) was boldly stamped. “These are my children. We ran the marathon,” Maria said proudly, pointing out a photo of her standing between a boy and a girl, both decked out in their sports gear.

Eleftheria was still at the same desk, watching footage that a university student had sent her earlier in the day. Determined not to damage any of the station’s expensive property, the team had locked up the cameras; any shooting done outside of the station relied on the journalists’ own gear, or contributions from other cameramen, filmmakers and student volunteers. The jerky handheld footage showed several people tying signs to fences, waving placards in protest. “This is footage from Skouries,” she said, referring to a region about two-and-a-half hours from Thessaloniki. The controversy in Skouries had been long and fierce, and for good reason; the region is home to one of the largest gold deposits in Greece.

The Skouries mine was bought by the Greek government in 2003, who immediately resold it to private companies. Although the European Court deemed this sale unlawful, little was done to address the problem. The sale and planned extraction of ore had local communities up in arms, fighting against operations likely to cause large-scale pollution that might even taint the local source of freshwater. Protests in Skouries were occasionally met with brutal force from the police, yet received little international attention. Commercial media in Greece also shied away from reporting on the anti-mining movement; their corporate owners far too intertwined with similar business interests to see the value in supporting an anti-capitalist campaign. It wasn’t long before ERT3 became the movement’s main ally in the media. “No one wants to look at this,” Eleftheria said. “None of the other TV or radio or newspapers. Just us.”

Eleftheria Farantaki poses with a painting done by a supporter of ERT3
Eleftheria Farantaki poses with a painting done by a supporter of ERT3

Without the ability to be beamed into people’s television sets, viewership was mostly confined to the online livestream. Yet there were people who still appreciated their work. “They’re still better than NERIT,” friends told us with snorts of derision for the broadcaster the government had hastily set up to replace ERT. Meant to be a leaner operation purged of the corruption and nepotism within ERT, the New Hellenic Radio, Internet and Television (NERIT) had resolved absolutely none of the issues of control and patronage that plagued Greek media. In fact, its content was even more pro-government than ERT’s had been.

“NERIT has not overcome the old, evil ways which characterized ERT operations,” Giorgos Plios, a media professor at Athens University, told Deutsche Welle in November 2014, adding that it was a “farce” to compare the broadcaster to the UK’s much-respected British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Greece needed an independent news source more than ever, and ERT3 was determined to prove their worth.

At about 6 p.m., Christina Siganidou strode into the building, ready to put together ERT3’s nightly two-hour-long news bulletin. An experienced, no-nonsense journalist, Christina worked with as much consistency and professionalism as she could in an office with one-fifth of the usual production crew and an unreliable internet connection. “You really have to start drawing on all the resources you can think of,” she said. “I don’t know if a less-experienced journalist could do this, every single day.”

Like many other ERT3 staff, Christina had given a significant amount of her life to the station: at the time of the shutdown, she had been a journalist with ERT for nineteen years. Fluent in Greek, English and French, she had once been in charge of the international segment of the news bulletin, but was now doing it all — domestic and international news, with interviews — by herself, day in and day out. “I said I would do the whole bulletin, and they didn’t believe me,” she said of colleagues who had gradually dropped out of the occupation. “But I did it — I’m still doing it!”

* * * *

The heat in late July was relentless, leaving the streets of Thessaloniki empty as Greeks escaped the city in droves in search of cooler refuges on the islands and by the beach. The long stretch of sand was packed with people stretched out on towels while their children played with snorkels and beach balls. Maria’s children –— thin, athletic and full of life — raced into the water, her daughter doing cartwheels in the sand along the way.

Relaxing under a large beach umbrella, Maria nodded toward all the people who were sharing the small beach not far from the city. “This beach used to be empty. We would come and there wouldn’t be many people, but now it’s full of people who are unemployed,” Maria told us. “It’s a weekday and they’re here on the beach because there is nothing else to do. Even if they want to go on holiday to the islands, they can’t afford to go.”

It was an unconventional way to witness austerity — we were much more accustomed to media reports on shrinking economies and eye-catching footage of clashes between anarchists and riot police. But this was the reality of everyday life in austere Greece: despite the crisis, people did their best to maintain as much normalcy as they could.

The scale of the crisis was amply demonstrated in numbers: the unemployment rate was at 28%. The figure for youth unemployment — ages defined as those between 16 and 25 — was even more dismal: a staggering 61.4%. Even those who had found work were paid depressingly low wages. A young architect we met in Athens was being paid only 250€ (US$273) a month. “I’m not angry at my boss for that,” she said. “She’s being paid the same.” Like an increasing number of Greek workers, they were both paid under-the-table so as to avoid having to pay tax on their meager wages.

Officially, this sinking standard of living wasn’t happening. Much of the news coming out of Greece in 2014 involved the government and IMF officials assuring people that austerity was working, and that the country was on the mend. Greece, according to Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, was becoming a “success story.”

The reality stood in stark contrast. For two years, austerity measures imposed on Greece had bled the population dry. While the numbers gave the appearance of a steady recovery, many middle-to-low-income Greeks had seen their lives dismantled before their eyes. It was a depressing existence; hope or optimism seemed far out of reach.

Maria was familiar with this experience; she hadn’t received a steady pay cheque in over a year. Her husband, a freelance cameraman, had also lost his main source of income after the production company he worked for shut down. Despite being an experienced steadicam operator — a sought after skill for film and TV productions around the world — he found himself at a loss in Greece, with only the occasional wedding to shoot for a modest fee. “You give things up slowly, bit by bit,” Maria told us with a sigh, speaking about her husband’s situation. “I used to buy the best milk for my children. Then I started to buy cheaper and cheaper brands. Maybe soon I will stop buying milk.”

As she drove us back to Thessaloniki in her old, clunky Opel, Maria pointed out a dusty-looking patrol car parked haphazardly outside a neighborhood police post, half of the vehicle parked up on the curb. “People here don’t need to worry about seatbelts or parking anymore,” she said, smiling wryly. “That police car has been parked there for months. They don’t have money for the petrol.”

She drove us back to the city center, past ancient Byzantine churches located next to shuttered shopfronts invariably adorned with graffiti. Despite having spent a marvellous afternoon by the sea, Maria was dissatisfied with her performance as our host. She hadn’t had the chance to take us to Halkidiki, a region near Thessaloniki with famously beautiful beaches on its three peninsulas. “Next time you come, we’ll go to Halkidiki. You’ll love it there. There is no place like Halkidiki,” Maria said with a grin.

“Greece has turned a page. Greece is leaving behind the destructive austerity, fear and authoritarianism. It is leaving behind five years of humiliation and pain,” said Alexis Tsipras, the newly-elected leftist Greek Prime Minister in February of the next year. Things, it seemed, were about to change.

Economics professor Yanis Varoufakis — who was blacklisted from ERT by the previous government due to his opinions — not only returned to the airwaves, but took a seat at the bargaining table with the EU Commission as Greece’s latest Finance Minister. Varoufakis was given a rock star’s reception; his casual jeans, leather jacket and motorcycle stood out against the haughty suits of other European politicians, almost like a visual metaphor for what Greece needed: something completely different. Many promises were waiting to be fulfilled as the new leftist government hit the road running. Among these competing needs was the reinstatement of the public broadcaster, ERT.

* * * *

May, 2015. Almost two years since the shutdown. There was no trip to Halkidiki this time either; Maria could no longer afford petrol for her car. Her mobile phone had been cut off and was now used only for photos and the occasional game of Angry Birds to keep her children amused. Without transport, she’d stopped traveling to ERT3’s office, a half-hour drive away from her home. “It was a difficult winter,” she said. She had found no work, and her husband still only had the odd wedding here and there as an unreliable source of income. Her son was outgrowing his shoes, but there wasn’t money to buy him a new pair just yet.

It didn’t look as if anyone else at ERT3 had had an easier time over the past year. The interior of the building hadn’t changed at all — still musty with the scent of cigarettes smoked long ago — but the mood had shifted. The stubborn, dogged determination of the journalists to push on despite the odds had been replaced by anger and bitter disappointment. Still hunched over the same desk, Eleftheria looked tired and stressed. “Things are not so good,” she said with a sigh. “They announced the appointed CEO for ERT, and it’s terrible. We can’t believe it.”

 ERT3’s dilapidated façade, almost two years into the occupation
ERT3’s dilapidated façade, almost two years into the occupation

ERT staff were not new to this CEO: Lambis Tagmatarchis had previously held this same position in 2010 and 2012. Back then, Eleftheria said, he had been keen on the idea of downsizing the corporation by getting rid of regional stations. No one knew if his return to power would renew his enthusiasm for this plan.

Prime Minister Tsipras himself had visited ERT3 in the run-up to the elections, promising he would make things right again. Yet none of ERT’s staff had been properly consulted during the process of reinstating the broadcaster; the bill to reinstate ERT, passed by parliament in April, had simply been a hasty appropriation of the bill previously used to establish the highly-problematic NERIT.

ERT3 was plunged into confusion and anxiety. No announcement had been made about who would head operations in Thessaloniki. The government had boldly declared that ERT would be back on air again very soon, yet there were no instructions for staff at ERT3. What programs, exactly, would be back on air, and who would be producing them? “I think they will just take NERIT’s program, change the logo to ERT, and say it’s back,” Eleftheria said in disgust. Her eyes filled with tears.

For Eleftheria and Christina, who had both given so much to the struggle, this new development signaled a return to the old ways. They had both spent years working in the previous problematic ERT, but weren’t keen to go back to that work culture. “This wasn’t just a fight for our jobs,” said Eleftheria. “If we just wanted jobs we would be at NERIT now. What we want is a new ERT, open to the public.”

Christina’s experience over the past twenty-four months had been profound, and the thought of going back seemed beyond belief. “It’s like they’ve erased us,” she said over and over again. For the first time, we saw her looking not just tired or over-worked, but upset. She had loved the unexpected transition to a new way of working as a journalist. “I’m more sensitive to stories, and I’m not afraid,” she said. “I know if something is interesting I can do it, because I have my colleagues. We can cover things we previously couldn’t [due to political interference].”

ERT3 had worked hard to establish itself as a truly public broadcaster, a station that was close to the community in which it operated. Conscious of the problems of neoliberalism within an ailing Greece, they had reached out to other labor and anti-austerity movements, linking up with cleaning ladies and public school guards as they campaigned and protested against brutal state-led cuts. “We want people to interact with their public broadcaster, for us to be part of the community, like we’ve done these two years,” Eleftheria said. “I don’t want to be called a traitor, to just go back to my job and shut the door to the people again.”

But while ERT3 had grown close to the social activists, another rift had opened up. Former colleagues — some of whom had joined NERIT — did not share the impactful, emotional journey that the occupiers had experienced over the past two years, and consequently were not committed to the collaborative social experiment that had been built. “For them, the clock in ERT3 stopped on June 11th, 2013,” Christina said. “They don’t share our experience. We are much richer now, but they don’t understand that.”

The occupiers had worked hard to build connections with the community and report, without interference, on social movements that had an impact on the people. They weren’t ready to give up just because of an unexpected disappointment. Yet this sentiment was not shared by their colleagues, many of whom were simply grateful to get their jobs back, and weren’t interested in idealistic dreams of officially reforming the organization from within.

Even Maria, beleaguered by unpaid debts, pointed out the need to be practical. “I respect the struggle, I respect everyone who has been in the movement,” she said. “But I don’t want to be the rebel anymore. I need to work. I need to feed my children.”

At 10 p.m. the building’s quiet, resigned vibe transformed into a buzz of energy and activity. Workers set aside feelings of disappointment and betrayal and reverted to their daily routine of putting together the news bulletin as best as they could. By 10:30 p.m., Christina was sitting behind the huge desk in the TV studio. A single cameraman moved between five cameras, and a team of seven were in place in the control room.

Every night ERT3 occupiers produce a two-hour bulletin, covering local and international news
Every night ERT3 occupiers produce a two-hour bulletin, covering local and international news

Putting together this nightly show — and the weekly talk shows and magazine shows that aired earlier in the day — required all hands on deck. The occupation had been a great leveler: secretaries became producers, cleaners picked up cameras and journalists helped scrub toilets. Children of workers, too, had pitched in; one of Eleftheria and Dimitrios’ sons volunteered as a sound engineer. There were no longer any closed door sessions with editors only to get news angles changed and stories spiked; now, decisions were made together, with no one able to pull rank over others.

A new solidarity and unity had come out of this experience — yet another thing the occupiers found difficult to articulate to their peers. “We called a meeting with our old colleagues, and explained the way we’d been working all this time,” Christina recalled. “One woman put up her hand and said she wasn’t going to take instructions from a cleaner.”

It was an unhappy moment, but Maria saw it another way. “This was the struggle, but now we have to go back to work. When we’re reinstated as the official public broadcaster again, we have to do what we have the qualifications for,” she said. With these problems unresolved, there was nothing to do but stay the course until they heard otherwise. And so they kept on working, always watchful for new developments. “Maybe next year when you come back, I’ll be back in my job as press officer. I’ll be blonde, and slim, and powerful,” Maria joked as we stood up to say goodbye. “And then we’ll go to Halkidiki. Because there’s no place like Halkidiki.”

* * * *

In the early morning of June 11 2015, the national anthem played on ERT’s frequency, the broadcaster’s logo back up in the corner of the screen as the Greek flag was juxtaposed with iconic landmarks. A news program featuring interviews with prominent members of the Syriza party followed. Contacts in Athens told us that the ERT orchestra and chorus performed that night. The international media carried the story: exactly two years after the shutdown, ERT was back.

Once again events in Athens eclipsed the rest of the country. Up in Thessaloniki, ERT3’s staff had still not heard about who their managing director would be, and so they continued with their pirate broadcasts. For them, the struggle would go on a little longer. There will likely be no third year for ERT3’s indefatigable occupiers; it’s only a matter of time before ERT3, too, is officially returned to the airwaves. For better or worse, a new chapter in ERT’s story has already begun, still a microcosm of Greece struggling to find its way.