'We will not go to new elections': PM offers talks after silencing of state-run broadcaster ERT shocks Greece

24-hour strike disrupts public transport as surprise closure causes political crisis

Independent Staff
Tuesday 18 June 2013 18:34

Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras moved to defuse a political crisis as a 24-hour strike by the country's two largest unions disrupted public transport and public services.

More than 10,000 protesters rallied outside Greece's public broadcasting headquarters after the government's move to close state-run TV broadcaster ERT as workers defy attempt to shut them down.

The Conservative prime minister has called a meeting on Monday with center-left coalition partners who are demanding that ERT be reopened.

"We are totally against seeing television screens going dark and we side with the overwhelming majority of the Greek people," Evangelos Venizelos, leader of the Socialist Pasok party and coalition partner, told parliament.

"The country does not need an election, but Pasok does not fear elections ... To think it does would be a major mistake."

The crisis was the worst in Mr Samaras' year-old government, which is credited rescuing Greece's euro membership by imposing harsh austerity and reform measures demanded by the country's international creditors.

Broadcast signals went switched off just hours after the government closed the Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation, known as ERT, and fired its 2,500 workers, to cut "incredible waste." But ERT journalists defied the order and continued a live Internet broadcast as thousands of protesters gathered outside the company's headquarters north of Athens.

The European Commission has denied responsibility and did not seek the closure of ERT, according to European Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn.

"The Commission has not sought the closure of ERT, but nor does the Commission question the Greek government's mandate to manage the public sector," he said.

"The decision of the Greek authorities should be seen in the context of the major and necessary efforts that the authorities are taking to modernize the Greek economy. Those include improving its efficiency and effectiveness of the public sector."

The civil servants' union ADEDY said it had called a strike and a series of protests to be held outside the ERT headquarters. The larger GSEE union was also meeting to ratify the decision and join the nationwide strike.

Journalist unions also launched rolling 24-hour strikes, halting private television news programs, while the government's centre-left coalition partners demanded that ERT's closure be reversed.

A government spokesman said a new public broadcaster would be launched before the end of the summer. "When you restructure something from the foundations, you have to close it, temporarily," he said.

Mr Samaras faces stern opposition from his own coalition partners - the Socialist Pasok and Democratic Left party - for the decision. The executive order to close ERT must be ratified by parliament within three months but cannot be approved without backing from the minority coalition lawmakers. The surprise closure of ERT is now one of the biggest crises to afflict the three-party coalition government since it was formed nearly a year ago.

Despite tensions over a number of issues, notably related to the austerity measures demanded by Greece's international creditors, the coalition government has surprised many by surviving. It has also been credited with stabilising the bailed out Greek economy and easing the threat of an exit from the euro.

Left-wing opposition leader Alexis Tsipras slammed the closure as "illegal" during an interview on ERT's online broadcast. "Many times the word 'coup' is used as an exaggeration," he said. "In this case, it is not an exaggeration."

ERT started radio programming in the 1930s and television in the mid-1960s. Alhough it was widely regarded as reflecting government positions - it had a channel run by the military during the 1967-74 dictatorship - the broadcaster was also valued for showcasing regional and cultural content and for covering major sporting events such as the football World Cup and the Olympics.

The decision to close it was announced during an inspection in Athens by officials from Greece's bailout creditors. The so-called "troika" of the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund has been pressing the government to start a long-delayed program to fire civil servants.

The European Commission said it had not sought the closure of ERT but "nor does the Commission question the Greek government's mandate to manage the public sector."

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