Among the 100-plus films being screened at Prague’s One World festival of human rights documentaries is The Lost Signal of Democracy. It explores what happened last June when, a couple of years after the country’s financial meltdown, the Greek government shut down public broadcaster ERT overnight. A move unprecedented in Europe, the closure shocked many Greeks and led to a nationwide national strike. I spoke to the film’s maker, Yorgos Avgeropolous, and asked him why Greece’s leaders had taken such a radical step.
“First, it was to keep the lenders satisfied. Because we actually signed in the memorandums that ERT and 35 smaller entities had to close. Also the government had the obligation to dismiss 2,000 public servants.
“The other reason is the first implementation in Greek society of the shock doctrine. It was a shock for everybody and everybody was frozen, remembering the dark period of the military dictatorship.
“The third reason is the government knew that in ERT there was some kind of freedom of expression.”
You’re saying the international lenders insisted that the government close the station – in that case, why was it a surprise?
“Because in the memorandums that we have signed there is a clause saying that the government has to shrink, to downsize or to close – so you have three options – some public entities.
“One of them was ERT. The government decided to close it down, because there were also other reasons that I explained to you earlier.”
One thing that surprised me was that, at least in the short term, the move cost the government a lot of money.
“Exactly. It is amazing right now that not only do we have to pay again hundreds of millions of euros in order to compensate, to re-establish and all this kind of stuff – Greek citizens are also paying, in their electricity bill, for a new public television which does not exist.”
What was the biggest lesson you learned from this whole experience?
“That the first victim of the crisis is democracy. And the second one is information. Or vice versa.”
At one point in the film you have a title saying that the closure of the public broadcaster killed democracy. Isn’t that an overly strong statement?
“No. It is not exactly written like this. It says, ironically, democracy dies in the country where it was born. It’s a case of how the crisis is killing democracy. Everything that has happened is completely anti-democratic, against the laws, against the constitution.”
What does the future hold? Do you think the next public service broadcaster will function, will be successful, will be able to replace ERT?
“I am not actually so optimistic. I have met the people that are running right now the new public television station, NERIT, which is going to function from April.
“They are good people. But you know, you have to have guts in order to keep governmental intervention away from the public broadcaster.”