December 16, 2019

News Finds New Ways to Flow as Greek State Broadcaster Is Shut

“An Execution to Please the Troika,” read one in the center-left newspaper Eleftherotypia, a reference to the trio of creditors — the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and the European Central Bank — whose representatives are back in Athens this week to audit Greece’s progress in sticking to conditions attached to the country’s multibillion-euro bailout.

Thomas Dedes, 67, a Greek retiree, said that a day spent chasing underground news reports and racing across online video channels and digital platforms like Twitter and Facebook reminded him of the unsavory days when Greece was ruled by a military dictatorship.

“This is worse than the junta,” said Mr. Dedes, recalling how people had to get their news surreptitiously or by word of mouth in 1973 when the junta’s leaders tightly controlled Greek state television and foreign news broadcasts. “What’s next? Tanks in front of Parliament?”

By early Wednesday, a form of guerrilla digital warfare had sprung up on the Internet to defy the government’s orders for a news shutdown. Numerous ERT employees continued operating an underground broadcast of Greek news through satellite streams. Those in turn were picked up by young Internet-savvy Greeks, who retransmitted hundreds of headlines on Facebook and Twitter throughout the day.

One leader of the organized charge is an Internet news outlet, the Press Project, whose founder, Kostas Efimeros, 38, sprang into action with his team of seven journalists and technicians immediately after the government announced that ERT, which ran radio and TV channels, would be closed.

As the government tried to cut the power to ERT’s antennas, Mr. Efimeros and his team tapped into satellite signals broadcast surreptitiously by ERT employees and posted them to the group’s Web site and on social media. In a telephone interview, he said the Press Project was working to transmit ERT’s broadcast signal via Wi-Fi as a backup.

The Press Project’s reporters have also been stationed outside of ERT headquarters north of Athens, where thousands of people have gathered in protest, as well as in front of the Parliament building, armed with cameras and microphones to keep the stream of news updates flowing.

Greece’s finance minister, Yannis Stournaras, said Wednesday that ERT employees were breaking the law by continuing to broadcast news surreptitiously and would “face the consequences” if they persisted.

Mr. Efimeros said they were ready for that.

“If the police try to shut us down, we will still have ways to broadcast the news for Greeks around the world,” said Mr. Efimeros, who said the group started “guerrilla transmissions” of news on the Internet three years ago from Egypt, as the Arab Spring broke out. He said its experience there taught it how to outwit government efforts to shut down alternative news outlets.

The government said Tuesday that it had decided to shut ERT and would reopen it later with far fewer employees to satisfy the demands by Greece’s creditors because the news outlet had become corrupt and bloated. That view has long been shared by many Greeks.

“It is common knowledge that every time a new government came in, they would put in a new director sympathetic to the leading party, and would then hire a lot of people,” said Amalia Zavacopoulou, 32, a schoolteacher. “There are a lot of stories about how many people work just two hours a day.”

Voicing similar concerns was Dimitris Sporakis, 47, who lost his job in a detergent factory last fall. “They’ve been having a party up in Agia Paraskevi with our money for a long time now,” he said, referring to the Athens suburb where ERT’s headquarters are. “It’s about time the civil servants felt some pain, too.”

Nonetheless, many Greeks felt uncomfortable with what Ms. Zavacopoulou called a “quasi-authoritarian” approach by the government.

Prokopis Doukas, a former anchor for ERT’s main state channel, Net, said he and his colleagues were shocked and disappointed by the sudden decision to dismiss them but also angry that a government that is itself accused of corruption should call the state broadcaster a “haven of waste.”

“I’m not saying that employees and unions are blameless, but it’s the management and the politicians who put them there who are chiefly responsible for wasteful spending,” Mr. Doukas said before entering a studio in ERT’s headquarters near Athens to join colleagues for a live program, being broadcast on the Internet.

“Our real fear is that the same government that engaged in the exchange of favors is now saying it will create a modern, transparent broadcaster,” he said. “We don’t want the government to fall, but how can we trust it?”

The event raised the specter of a further weakening of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’s fragile ruling coalition, whose politicians suggested they would try to block the move on Wednesday night even though it did not require parliamentary approval.

“We don’t want to bring down the government,” said Andreas Papadopoulos, an official for the Democratic Left, which is part of the coalition with the prime minister’s New Democracy party. “But this is a mistake by New Democracy and Mr. Samaras and must be corrected. With such actions they are testing the limits of democracy.”

On Mr. Samaras’s orders, the Mass Media Ministry on Wednesday quickly released a bill outlining the framework for a new, leaner replacement for ERT. The government spokesman, Simos Kedikoglu, said Wednesday that the new entity would be set up over the summer. It remained unclear how many people it would employ.

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Greek Parliament Expected to Approve Austerity Plan

Stock markets rallied across Europe and much of Asia amid indications that the measures would be approved. Only one member of the governing Socialist Party, Alexandros Athanassiadis, now says he will oppose the package. Thomas Robopoulos, who had previously said he would oppose the measures, declared that he had changed his mind.

Protesters massed outside Parliament shouting “Traitors, traitors!” and the police repeatedly fired tear gas to maintain control after demonstrators knocked down a barrier.

As the vote neared, local media reported that the positions of two or three other party skeptics had softened, and Elsa Papadimitriou, a legislator from the leading opposition party, New Democracy, told Parliament on Wednesday that she would vote for the measures despite the opposition of the conservative leader Antonis Samaras. Calling it the “most difficult but valuable decision of my political career,” Ms. Papadimitriou said she hoped the government would not disappoint her.

Parliament was to vote on tax increases, wage cuts and the privatization of 50 billion euros, or about $72 billion, in state assets. Assuming the measures pass, a second vote will be held Thursday to implement the latest austerity program, with key sticking points expected to include the timing of the privatizations, especially of the state electric utility, Public Power Corporation, whose powerful union has close ties to the Socialists.

The nation’s unions complicated matters on Tuesday when they began a 48-hour general strike — the first time they had walked out for more than 24 hours since democracy was restored to Greece in 1974 after a seven-year military dictatorship. The police were calling in reinforcements to cordon off streets near Parliament to ensure that protesters did not block legislators’ access to the building, with 5,000 police officers on the job.

One protester, who would only give his first name, Theodore, said on Wednesday that Greeks’ lives “are going to change forever” if the measures were approved. “If you belong to the middle class, that doesn’t exist anymore. There’s only rich and poor.”

“What they’re voting on is exactly the opposite of what they were elected to do,” Anastasia Arvanitiki, 57, a pharmacist, said. “They’ll be the worst criminals in history” if the vote goes through, she said. “We want to see them hanged.”

Prime Minister George A. Papandreou has a five-vote parliamentary majority as he tries to push through the austerity plan, which strikes at the heart of his Socialist Party base. The center-right New Democracy opposition party has struck a populist tone and opposes the measures, saying they offer too much austerity and not enough stimulus.

Mr. Robopoulos, told state television on Tuesday that he would support the measures, “putting the national interest above everything else.” Earlier, he had said he would decide “at the very last moment, after I have listened to all the speakers,” referring to the debate in Parliament.

“This is a crucial moment; if the memorandum does not pass we shall go bankrupt,” Mr. Robopoulos added.

He spoke after talks with the new finance minister, Evangelos Venizelos, a longtime Socialist who is regarded as being able to rally the party behind the measures, however unpopular.

As lawmakers debated Tuesday, riot police clashed with protesters.

The protests Tuesday in Syntagma Square in front of Parliament began peacefully but turned violent as groups of youths on the fringes began throwing rocks, firebombs and firecrackers.

The European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund have said they will release $17 billion that Greece needs to pay its expenses through the summer if Parliament passes the measures.

“The only way to avoid immediate default is for Parliament to endorse the revised economic program,” said Olli Rehn, the European Union’s top economic and monetary affairs official. “Let me say this clearly: There is no Plan B to avoid default.”

In Brussels, European Union officials said they were working on contingency plans, including an effort to persuade the Greek opposition leader Antonis Samaras of the New Democracy Party to support the measures.

Last year, Greece’s foreign lenders imposed austerity measures after they provided a first round of aid. Since then, Greece has cut the wages of its 800,000 public workers — a quarter of the work force — by more than 10 percent.

The demonstration on Tuesday was one of the first in which labor unions joined with the younger demonstrators who have gathered in downtown Athens every night for the past month. Security forces fired tear gas to thin out the crowd, sending the demonstrators fleeing into side streets.

A police official said that 23 people were detained, with five later arrested, and that 21 officers were injured, none seriously.

Near Syntagma Square, a 40-year-old woman who gave her name only as Eirini, said she had been a secretary in a construction firm but had been out of work for more than five months.

“I’m here because we have nothing to lose,” she said, pushing down the surgical mask she used to filter out the tear gas. “We know very well that in six months, when they run out of money in the banks, we will be even more broke and hungry.”

She added, “I think that in one year, we are going to go to Syntagma, take out all the grass and plant tomatoes.”

Stephen Castle contributed reporting from Brussels.

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