EBU moves from assistance to defiance

A key player in the saga of Greece's public broadcaster usually sticks to support rather than activism. Not this time

Tuesday night, many devoted Greek soccer fans were glued to their computers instead of slouching in front of the TV to watch a match between Greece and Mali. Though Greece’s highest court ordered the government to restart the public broadcaster’s signal after Prime Minister Antonis Samaras shut it down on June 11, it remained dark, so journalists from ERT secured a live Internet feed of the crucial game.

The (ongoing) bootleg livestream wouldn’t have happened without the help of the European Broadcasting Union. A lesser-known player in the Greek broadcasting saga, EBU has vigorously advocated for the ERT—closed for budget-conscious restructuring—at a time when it has lost its voice. Though unknown to most, the usually quiet organization plays a big role in the European broadcasting landscape.

“EBU supports us all the way,” said Fanis Papathanasiou, a former senior diplomatic correspondent at ERT and currently an anchor on the livestream. Papathanasiou is one of about 150 fired ERT journalists and technical professionals who refused to let Hellenic Radio and Television die. They have occupied ERT’s headquarters in Athens around the clock, defying police orders to vacate and keeping at least a semblance of a channel on the air.

This is the first time in its 56 years of existence that EBU has ever defied a government in this way, Ingrid Deltenre, director general of EBU, said in an email exchange. Normally, the group—which touts 74 public broadcasters as members—is happier to be in the backroom lobbying governments and serving as the continent’s largest distributor of news and sports.

Although best known for its annual cheesy song contest, Eurovision, a division of EBU, provides its network of public service broadcasters with everything from satellite space, original programming, and live sports to news and culture. By pooling resources, European, Middle East, and North African public service broadcasters can share news feeds. Eurovision coordinates it all. Last year the Eurovision News Exchange provided public service broadcasters with 50,000 news items and more than 2,800 hours of live feeds.

EBU also claims to have the world’s largest satellite and fiber network — a useful thing to have when you want to defy a government order.

The evening Samaras announced ERT’s closure, Eurovision set up a mobile satellite unit in the courtyard outside the station to transmit signals coming from the occupied building and streamed them live to ERT’s website within Greece. But when the Greek government took down the website, EBU streamed the signal to Geneva and hosted the livestream on its own webpage.

“These were drastic circumstances and we felt they needed a fitting response,” Deltenre wrote while on her way to Malta, where the lobbying group will hold its annual meeting starting on Thursday.

“There was (also) a point of principle. The Greek government made a big mistake in shutting down ERT in this high-handed, unilateral way. It was an assault on media freedom, an attack on democracy, and a disservice to Greek people.”

Deltenre would not say what it cost to run the satellite, describing it only as “worthwhile.” She added that EBU would continue “as long as there is no alternative delivery of public service broadcasting in Greece, or, as long as we are able.”

The challenges ahead for public service broadcasters are daunting. In the age of austerity, cuts are inevitable. In addition to the 2,566 workers fired in Greece, another 900-plus lost their jobs in Spain and 400 jobs at the BBC have not been replaced. Continent-wide, public broadcasting budgets fell 7.4 percent between 2006 and 20011. Some networks, like those in Germany and Scandinavia, are relatively unscathed. Other public TV and Radio organizations, like in Romania and Hungary, have seen their budgets halved.

The fear is, “as austerity continues, we shrink and shrink and shrink until we are so small, governments close us,” said Alexander Wrabetz, a member of EBU’s executive board. “There has to be a discussion on the European level about the goals and values of public service broadcasting.”

Competition remains tough from private broadcasters, who also are hurt by falling advertising revenues as they wait for the economic recovery to take affect. Public networks also vie with private ones for digital frequencies as they are handed out. The fight for audience is fierce from the Internet as well.

But this month, EBU’s focus has been in Athens. At the same time Eurovision technicians were helping the protesting journalists, EBU President Jean-Paul Philippot and lawyers met with Greece’s finance minister June 14 to demand that ERT be reopened and to offer assistance in restructuring and reforming the broadcaster.

The finance minister dismissed them, saying they were infringing on Greek radio telecommunications law by assisting the rogue journalists and threatened EBU with legal proceedings. So far, that hasn’t happened, but EBU officials say they would help again.

“What happened in Greece could happen anywhere,” said Wrabetz, who is also Director General of Austrian public broadcaster ORF. Last year, Portugal considered privatizing its public broadcaster. Last week, UK Conservatives lauded the Greek move, suggesting it was time to scrap BBC.

Training Broadcast Journalists; instilling ethics

EBU regularly trains staff in member stations, instilling strong journalistic values and ethics. Many European public broadcasters have a history of government interference that kept those ethics from being instituted. In Greece, Portugal, and Spain, media were heavily censored by dictators until the mid-1970s. State TV in Eastern and Central European nations were influenced by communist governments until the 1990s.

So last year, EBU members agreed to a set of principles—impartiality and independence, fair and respectful, accurate and accountable—that have been translated into a code of conduct and signed by nearly all 74 members. EBU’s next step, due later this year, is to provide broadcasters with a self-assessment test.

“The EBU provides best practice examples to help turn state TVs into public service broadcasters,” said Hans-Martin Schmidt, a spokesman for German’s public broadcaster. Because of EBU’s experience in Eastern Europe, Tunisia asked Eurovision to help that country, emerging from the Arab Spring, with its TV network. EBU trainers accompanied Tunisian journalists as they reported on the latest elections. They have also traveled to Zagreb this month, to help the broadcaster in Croatia, soon to be the EU’s latest member.

Meanwhile, back in Athens, Papathanasiou said he would welcome EBU’s help in convincing the Greek government to end political interference and establish an independent, quality network.

Transmission of Tuesday’s FIFA game went well. Because they have been occupying the building, the livestream has only been able to transmit talking heads, so Tuesday was a breakthrough for the pirates, who were able to offer real content for viewers—content distributed by Eurovision. Wednesday, it broadcast a track and field event, also with the help of EBU.

“It almost feels like a real station again,” Papathanasiou said.

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Alison Langley has more than 25 years experience in journalism as a reporter and editor. Her stories have appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times, The Guardian, The FT and The Independent. She currently lectures in journalism at Fachhochschule Wien and Webster University Vienna. Tags: , ,