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Greece: Is Democracy Ending Where It Started?

Greece's state of democracy is at a crossroads. The country that gave birth to the Western model of democracy 4000 years ago is at the heart of a crisis, which is now affecting one of its main sources of information to the public.

As a journalist, I developed over the years a profound interest in media propaganda, information control, as well as regulations of freedom of speech and information transparency in what we call our Western democracies. With this fascination in mind, I started working for The Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies in Montreal, Canada. Created in 1986 by Concordia University professors Dr. Frank Chalk and Dr. Kurt Jonassohn, the organization aims to study and prevent early stages of human rights violations and genocides in countries where the fundamental democratic values are threatened.

As an intern, my role was to monitor and compare the information coming from state-owned media and private or independent media in a given country -- in this case, I was assigned Kenya. One of the key criteria we had to take into consideration in our weekly report was to monitor the government control over the distribution of news. In other words, we had to report any abnormal change, such as the sudden increase in government control of the availability of information to their population.

Given their lack of socio-economic and political stability, countries like Syria, Egypt, Somalia, Zimbabwe, Kenya, The Democratic Republic of the Congo and others were the first to be considered and studied. Provided that I myself was born and raised in France and had Greek roots, I somehow never questioned the fact that there was no European country in the list.

So, I started to wonder about the roots behind my bias. As inhabitants of the Old Continent, cradle of the conceptualization of the world's most fundamental democratic values and principles, have we taken democracy for granted? The recent shutdown of Greece's TV and radio stations of the broadcaster Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation (ERT) as part of the country's austerity measures is a striking example of the necessity for us Europeans to reconsider and re-examine our democracies.

Many journalists in Greece and in the rest of Europe share the vision that PM Antonis Samara's move -- which resulted in more than 2,600 people being laid-off in a country where almost 27 percent of Greeks are already unemployed -- was a severe political mistake.

"Does the Greek government think it can economize on democracy?" said Christophe Deloire, secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders. "With the economic crisis already endangering the country that gave birth to democracy, the closure of ERT's TV stations shows a contempt for freedom of information, enshrined in article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The government's methods are incredible."

ERT introduced radio in the 1930s and television in the 1960s. With a variety of programs which strive to appeal to the majority of people, including Turkish soap operas, religious masses on Sundays, documentaries, sports coverage and music broadcasting, state-funded ERT was known as a point of reference for millions of Greeks from the Diaspora just like myself who share nostalgia for the homeland.

Since the beginning of the crisis, Greece's socio-political landscape has dramatically changed. Youth unemployment, salary and pension cuts, tax increases, crisis in the health and education systems, rise in the number of homeless and drug addicts, police violence against asylum seekers, foreigners and refugees are part of many Athenians' lives. As the economic balance of the country is jeopardized, so is its political stability. Last April, the Greek Parliament passed a law approving the layoffs of 15,000 state workers before the end of 2014, as a condition of receiving 9 billion euros in aid from the Troika.

In situations like this, protecting independent media and the plurality of voices is essential for democracy to continue thriving. In no circumstance can the sacrifice of the media be a solution to resolve economic problems. On the contrary, when a state like Greece is devastated by such major economic implosion, the necessity of public service broadcasting and independent impartial news coverage is even more vital.

But Greece's media system has strongly suffered from the crisis since 2011. Aside from being the regular targets of neo-Nazi violence operating along with the extreme-right party Golden Dawn's growing power in the country, journalists have also had to face various degrees of censorship regarding their right to publish certain information. Kostas Vaxevanis, editor of the weekly Hot doc, who published the "Lagarde List" gathering names of suspected tax evaders is a perfect example, as his trial started on June 10, one day before the ERT was shut down.

Why pulling the plug on the national broadcaster without any discussion? Why choosing specifically to sacrifice one of the key instruments of democracy to save money?

Officially, the reason is because the ERT costs "three to seven times as much as other TV stations and four to six times the personnel -- for a very small viewership, about half that of an average private station," government spokesman Simos Kedikolgou said. The government assures that the broadcaster will be closed temporarily to give the time to create a reformed structure, which will cost less and attract more viewership.

For the journalists who are on strike, the problem is a democratic one because the shutdown is destroying the pluralism of information, and attacking a symbol. The government officials have argued that ERT was corrupted by political patronage. So is the country's heavily bureaucratic civil service, whose system of nepotism and clientelism has led to the creation of unnecessary jobs and increased costs for the state over the years. Needless to say that the system as a whole needs to be reshaped; but it is a long process, and in such an unbalanced sociopolitical context, touching at the information institutions is always symbolically alarming.

The Greek example is a reminder that the Western democratic principles that we wrongly often think are set in stone are far from being flawless and unbreakable. On the contrary, the consequences of Greece's economic turmoil on its democracy are the perfect illustration of how fragile democracy really is.

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