Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras faces a political revolt after pulling the plug on the country’s state broadcaster in the middle of the night.
News presenters were cut off mid-sentence when Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation (ERT), the 75-year-old state television station, was dragged off-air just hours after the decision was announced, in what the government described as a temporary measure to stem the flow of wasted taxpayers’ money into a channel plagued by “excesses”.
The move is intended to pacify Greece’s international lenders and demonstrate the government’s willingness to move ahead with reforms in the debt-plagued nation.
Many of the station’s 2,600 employees, 600 of whom are journalists, refused to cease broadcasting, taking their coverage online.
A strike by Greece's two largest unions disrupted public transport and left state hospitals running on skeleton staff, while flights were to be grounded. Mr Samaras will meet his coalition partners on Monday in a bid to find a way a out of the growing political crisis.
Unions and journalists called the 24-hour nationwide strike in support of the station’s staff, while thousands of ordinary Greeks flocked to the ERT headquarters in the Athens suburb of Agia Paraskevi to demonstrate against the closure on Wednesday, and against what some see as an attack on press freedoms.
Georgos, a former employee of previously state-owned Olympic Airways who came to the ERT headquarters, told The Independent: “This is unacceptable. There was no public debate about it.”
The move also triggered international condemnation, with the European Broadcasting Union urging Mr Samaras to reconsider. The European Commission said it did not seek ERT’s closure under the bailout, but did not question the decision, while France’s Socialist government called the move “very worrying and regrettable”.
Mr Samaras’s centre-left coalition partners said they were furious at the decision, and had not been consulted. Coalition party leaders were meeting tonight, with some analysts suggesting they could force Samaras into a confidence vote that could, potentially, bring him down.
“What we oppose was the way they just pulled the plug,” said Thodoros Margaritis, a senior member of the Democratic Left party. He said he agrees ERT needs a revamp, but disagreed with the way the government suspended activities.
“If Samaras doesn’t look for some compromise... we will be forced to go to new elections and he will bear the responsibility for this,” Mr Margaritis said.
The closure of ERT came as the Athens stock exchange was downgraded to emerging-market status by index provider MSCI, making Greece the first country ever to lose the status of a developed market.
In an attempt to restore calm, government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou told journalists that the ERT closure was temporary, and it would reopen by the end of the summer.
“It is not a shut down – it is a restart,” Mr Kedikoglou said.
Though ERT is Greece’s public broadcaster, it does not share the popularity and repute of its equivalents in some other countries. In announcing the reasons for the move, Mr Kedikoglou listed a catalogue of ERT’s excesses, which include three orchestras paid as civil servants and 19 provincial radio stations which broadcast only four hours of original programmes each day.
Today, hundreds of workers carried out a sit-in at the state broadcaster’s headquarters, but not all were entirely against the move.
“We weren’t expecting this,” Odin Linardatou, ERT’s international news editor, told The Independent. She has worked for the channel for 26 years. “We expected some lay-offs and some restructuring but it was a shock that they closed it down so abruptly.”
Fanis Papathanasiou, one of the anchors of ERT’s morning show, said he was working when he heard that ERT would be taken off the air. He says he is in favour of reform, but is concerned that blame for the station’s excesses has been placed on workers instead of management.
“I was relieved to tell you the truth because… ERT deserves a better future,” the veteran journalist explained. “Of course we have things to correct at ERT: we were oversized, but that’s not my fault.”