ATHENS: Greece was in the grip of a new political crisis on Wednesday as the government faced a storm of public protest and a general strike over the shock shutdown of state broadcaster ERT.
The broadcaster’s television and radio stations were abruptly pulled off air late Tuesday and its 2,700 staff suspended as part of the conservative-led coalition government’s deeply unpopular austerity drive.
“The ERT lockup amounts to a coup d’etat,” leading union GSEE said in a statement it announced a 24-hour general strike on Thursday, the third in the crisis-hit country this year.
Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’s government defended the closure of the 60-year-old institution, saying it was a “haven of public waste” and too corrupt to save.
“We are doing things correctly,” government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou told journalists.
“There was no other way,” he said as the government unveiled a bill on a new public broadcasting entity. “We are creating a completely independent public television.”
But the sudden shutdown of ERT caused uproar, with journalists kicking off a 24-hour strike Wednesday while defiant staff staged sit-ins at the organisation’s offices in Athens and Greece’s second largest city Thessaloniki.
Riot police were stationed outside ERT offices around the country to prevent “any destruction”, said Kedikoglou, himself a former journalist at the organisation.
The government has imposed sweeping public cutbacks demanded by the debt-laden country’s international lenders in return for a massive bailout.
Greece is caught in a six-year recession which austerity critics say has been exacerbated by successive pay and pension cuts imposed at the behest of its EU-IMF creditors.
Unemployment is steadily rising and now exceeds 26 percent, with half of young people out of work.
“ERT is a case of an exceptional lack of transparency and incredible extravagance. This ends now,” Kedikoglou had said on Tuesday in announcing the closure.
Employees at the station, stunned by the sudden loss of their jobs, were defiantly transmitting rogue broadcasts on the Internet, vowing to resist the shutdown.
“We are not leaving the building,” Panagiotis Kalfayiannis, the head of ERT’s main union, told AFP.
“We are going to Greek and European justice. Even if they want to destroy democracy, rules still apply and I am going to fight.”
Thousands of people rushed to ERT’s main headquarters in Athens and its Thessaloniki offices on Tuesday to show their support for the broadcaster.
The European Union said it did not question the government decision but that public broadcasting was “an integral part of European democracy”.
Media observers acknowledge that ERT has a long history of mismanagement and heavy-handed political meddling, but say the Samaras administration was not free of blame.
Recent controversial decisions include the appointment of a former deputy minister’s daughter as a show host, and the ousting of two journalists who had criticised the public order minister on air.
“This is deep hypocrisy,” veteran journalist Yiannis Tzannetakos told Sto Kokkino radio station. “The responsibilities rest with various governments which appointed the management of ERT.”
Messages of support for the broadcaster have poured in from the Greek diaspora — for whom ERT is a vital link to the homeland.
The head of the Orthodox Church of Greece, Archbishop Ieronymos, said ERT staff were being “sacrificed” to pay for decades of wasteful administration.
“Healing an organisation is one thing, but killing it abruptly and violently is totally different,” he said.
The government said ERT would reopen at a later stage under a new format and with considerably fewer employees. All 2,655 current staff would be compensated and allowed to reapply for a job at the revamped organisation.
Junior coalition partners Pasok denounced the closure, while opposition leader Alexis Tsipras said he would call on President Carolos Papoulias to block the order for ERT’s dissolution.
“We absolutely disagree with the government’s particular decisions and management,” the socialist Pasok said. “We will not vote in favour of the law validating this legislative act.”
The shutdown followed months of work stoppages by ERT employees in protest at plans to restructure the broadcaster called for by Greece’s troika of international creditors.
Athens has pledged to cut 4,000 state-sector jobs this year and another 11,000 in 2014 to keep drawing rescue loans under the EU-IMF package.