March 14, 2015 originally published
Yorgos Avgeropoulos: The essence of the ERT story is Democracy
Interview with Yorgos Avgeropoulos by Antonis Galanopoulos
On June 11 2013, the rightwing government of Antonis Samaras shut ERT (Greek National Broadcaster) down in just 5 hours, a move that has never taken place before in any well-governed democratic state. Yorgos Avgeropoulos and his partners started to document the events as they took place. The material was destined for AGORA, the feature film-documentary on the Greek crisis that has been in production for the past 4 years. But after everything that took place and the way that it evolved, the international outcry, the flagrant violation of the Constitution and the domestic political crisis, “The Lost Signal of Democracy” turned into an independent one-hour movie.
The documentary “The Lost Signal of Democracy” was inspired by the closure of ERT. It only took 5 hours for Prime Minister Antonis Samaras to shut it down. What is the purpose of documenting these events? What does the government’s decision to shut down ERT mean to you?
I believe that the closure of ERT is the most obvious proof that Democracy is the first victim of the crisis, despite the fact that effectively all we could see was a blacked out screen-. I therefore decided to use it as a case study. I believe that it is one of the most emblematic moments of the Greek crisis, from 2009 till today. In this sense, I think that it is a very useful project for Greek people but mostly for the people of other countries, because the project was created having them mainly in mind. The movie also describes the conflict between the public and the private sphere, something that we experience not only in Greece but in Europe as well. This means that during the crisis the private sector wants to expand, while at the same time the public sphere shrinks. And this does not only happen in the media sector but in other sectors too, like in education or in public health.
The shutting down of ERT immediately turned into an issue of Democracy. It was perceived as censorship, muzzling. Many claim that the imposition of the Memorandum measures is not compatible with a fully functional Democracy. What is your comment on that?
That is true. I have to add that we live in a period where many critical decisions are taken through acts of legislative content, resulting by definition to the restriction of Democracy. According to the government if Democracy is not effective then it is certainly going to die, as Pantelis Kapsis, Deputy Culture Minister in charge of public broadcasting, says in the documentary. Obviously everyone understands that we live in a period where the markets are those who define things. For me this in itself is further proof that Democracy is slowly dying.
On the other hand we should pay attention to Europe’s bilingualism. In the memorandums and the loan agreements that we have signed, the closure or the merger of 35 bodies, including that of ERT, had been planned since 2011. ERT was mentioned nominally, its fate was fixed. Afterwards, when ERT shut down, we watched the EBU objecting, Barosso saying that public television is one of the pillars of Democracy in Europe and so on. These objections result to the following contradiction. On one hand the European Commission appears to defend public television. On the other hand it puts pressure through the troika, on its member states and especially those in the South, to close down, to shrink, and undermine their own public media. This can also be seen in the case of water privatisation. So I think that this bilingualism is typical to Europe.
How would you describe an independent and really public broadcaster in Greece?
An independent, public television is desired both in Greece and in the rest of the world but in my opinion no one has achieved that yet. Around the world we see governments trying to control, manipulate, and guide the public television. Either way though, in Greece we had over done it. In Greece, unfortunately, every government considered public broadcasting its own property and a place to fulfill its political agenda. I am not sure that with the new public television, NERIT, we will manage to have the kind of public television that we all dream of.
And what is the public television that we dream of? It is the one that will be truly independent, beyond party manipulation, beyond governmental interferences, that will be pluralistic. This is the key word, because pluralism is one of the pillars of democracy. And that is after all why we want the public television, that will be free from interests and it will be our television, everyone’s television. This is the ideal goal. The closer we get to this goal, the bigger the success.
Could public television play an educational role where there is lack of education.
Exactly. Public television is a school. It can tell you things that you will not hear in the private media for the simple reason that such things do not rise viewership. On a European level how many watch ARTE for example. How many French? How many Germans? A few. ERT was of the same calibre. Obviously not a lot of people were watching its program. Most prefer to watch Turkish soap operas.
Is there an example-prototype of public television? Maybe the BBC?
Talking with colleagues, who have worked for the BBC, I can say that there are some aspects that one could adopt, but the BBC is no paradise either. There have been cases in the past where the director general resigned reporting an effort of government intervention. There are problems everywhere. No one is perfect. There is no country or public television that functions perfectly and for which you can say “Look at that, we must copy them”. Such a thing does not exist. There are problems everywhere and in fact serious ones. Either of interventions and dependence on the government or big financial problems, where big cut are taking place everywhere lately. Recently we saw these problems in Spain, in Valencia, and also in Holland though it is not widely known. VPRO recently sent out an SOS. They suffered a 100 million euro cut on an already reduced budget. There was a reduction from 21 to 8 stations and lots of people were fired. The French are also facing the same problems. So we do see similar events happening all over Europe.
You highlighted the difference between public and private means of information. What role have they have played in the crisis?
It iscom mon belief that in Greece the private media have supported the government’s austerity policy. And I believe that one of the reasons that this has happened is because the private media have old, established relations of interdependence, not only with this government but with every government. You must remember Karamanlis famously using the word “pimps”. The only businesses that currently have access to loans, thus the possibility of funding, are the mainstream media.
The only rival was the public television that in response was totally weakened and in fact in such a way, in such an incredible way, that essentially the private sector benefited by this. It did not benefit the public television and it did not benefit the country’s economy because this asset was dissolved. We had a destruction of great value. When you have a brand, when you are building an organisation for 75 years, there should be a plan even in case you want to shut it down, to transfer it, to change it. This was a strategic mistake in relevance to the destruction of value, of the asset that we call public television. Maybe this happened on purpose. There was no signal, the screen just went blank, and that is such a tragic thing to happen on air.
The citizens are currently paying for a service that is not provided to them. This is unbelievable. When I talk about it abroad people ask me “And how is it even possible to tolerate something like that?” and my answer is “You don’t get it. There is an overload. Greek people have a new tax to face every day. Every day there is something different and you don’t even have the time to process it”.
“The Lost Signal of Democracy” premiered in Belgium and Austria January 8 , 2014 and in fact on public television in both cases. What were the reactions of the European public? What were your thoughts on the fact that at the same time Greece was Europe’s only country with no public television?
The documentary has already been broadcasted or it will be broadcasted in a total of 18 countries. Those who have watched it are left speechless and enraged. What they see is a government that defines the Constitution and the laws and does whatever it wants. They see a country that supposedly gave birth to Democracy and brought the light of ideas to Europe and now lives an economic and social tragedy. At the same time there are serious issues of democracy and respect towards the institutions by the government itself. They see a parliament, the temple of democracy, that falters and is completely eliminated with all the decisions being made through acts of legislative content. They see the politicians simply serving our lenders. At the end of the documentary all these initiate a very interesting discussion that usually reflects the viewer’s own fears. They know that Greece is a guinea pig and that if all this is happening now in Greece, it may also later happen to their own country. The discussion concerns the heart of the issue, the realisation that Democracy is declining. This is what we experienced through ERT. The essence of the ERT story is Democracy itself.
What hurts me is that discussions of this kind, with only a few exceptions, have not taken place in Greece. We no longer discuss. It makes me sad, as I am also sad by the fact that the documentary has not been broadcasted in Greece. I would really like it if it had been broadcasted earlier. When the documentary premiered at the same time in Belgium and in Austria I was thinking that the work of a Greek, that is about Greece and was filmed in Greece, has not been broadcasted in Greece- because it is not possible- and it broadcasts abroad. That hurt me and embarrassed me. It was the first time that I did not see it with my own eyes playing on TV. The first time.
It gave me courage when I was told that it went exceptionally well in Belgium and in Austria. I was told that people were calling at the public television giving congratulations, telling them that that was exactly what they expect from public television etc. The Belgian press welcomed the documentary with the comment “a magnificent call for justice” and that’s exactly what it is.
Yorgos Avgeropoulos is a Greek journalist and documentary filmmaker
Translated by Thomi Gaki