ATHENS, Greece — Greece’s conservative-led government was facing a political crisis today after its decision to shut down state-run TV and radio as part of spending cuts triggered a wave of strikes and fierce opposition from within the coalition government.
The country’s two largest labor unions called a 24-hour general strike for Thursday with flights from Greece’s airports set to halt for two hours that day.
TV and radio signals from the Hellenic Broadcasting Corp., or ERT, went dead early today, hours after the government closed the broadcaster down and fired its 2,500 workers, citing the need to cut “incredible waste.”
Protesters gathered outside the company’s headquarters north of Athens for a second day — sheltering from torrential rainfall in the building’s giant lobby — as ERT’s journalists defied the order and continued a live Internet broadcast.
Journalist unions also launched rolling 24-hour strikes, halting news programs on Greece’s privately owned broadcasters, while the government’s center-left coalition partners demanded that ERT’s closure be reversed.
The government defended its decision, insisting a new more efficient and less costly public broadcaster would be launched before the end of the summer.
“When you restructure something from the foundations, you have to close it, temporarily,” government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou said.
ERT started radio programming in the 1930s and television in the mid-1960s. Though 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.
ERT is largely state-funded, with every Greek household paying a fee through its electricity bills — whether they have a TV set or not. There are also several private broadcasters in Greece, including Mega and Sky.
ERT employee Kaity Potha, 55, said the government was blaming the broadcaster’s staff for their own incompetence, having given high-paid jobs at the broadcaster in return for political patronage.
“Our salaries have been cut 45 percent in the past three years,” she said. “Every clown who governed Greece in recent decades dumped us not only with their own governing board but also with 200-300 new staff — their salaries have not been cut.”
The surprise closure of ERT is one of the biggest crises to hit the three-party coalition government since it was formed nearly a year ago.
Conservative Prime Minister Antonis Samaras faces escalating 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 is faces failure if it is not backed by all the coalition’s members. The Democratic Left has already submitted legislation in parliament to cancel the order. Junior coalition party heads were to meet later today to discuss the closure.
The European Broadcasting Union, based in Geneva, Switzerland, expressed its “profound dismay” at the closure in a letter to Prime Minister Samaras, urging him to reverse course.
And EBU statement said state channels had a combined market share of 14.9 per cent in 2012, running on licensing fee that was among the lowest in Europe.
The decision to close ERT was announced during an inspection in Athens by officials from Greece’s bailout creditors. Debt-stifled Greece has depended on rescue loans since May 2010. In exchange, it has imposed deeply resented income cuts and tax hikes, which exacerbated a crippling recession and forced tens of thousands of businesses to close, sending unemployment to a record of 27 percent.
The “troika” of bailout inspectors — the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund — has been pressing Athens to start a long-delayed program to cut 15,000 state jobs by 2015. The shuttering of the state broadcaster is the first time in the three-year bailout program that any state employee has lost their job.
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 stabilizing 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.
“This is an action that challenges our democracy. It’s a coup. It lacks the backing of a parliamentary majority because the two (minority coalition) parties have expressed their opposition,” Tsipras said after a meeting with the country’s president.
The European Commission said it had not sought the closure of ERT and “nor does the Commission question the Greek government’s mandate to manage the public sector.”