Greece announced the closure of its state broadcaster out of the blue on Tuesday, one of the most drastic measures yet in its struggle to shore up its bankrupt state finances and meet the terms of an international bailout.
The decision to take ERT off the air at midnight and pay off some 2,600 staff before re-launching it in a slimmed-down form set off a firestorm of protests from trade unions and even junior partners in the ruling coalition. Some of the channels appeared to shut down even before the deadline.
“At a time when the Greek people are enduring sacrifices, there is no room for delay, hesitation or tolerance for sacred cows,” spokesman Simos Kedikoglou said in what was almost certainly ERT‘s last televised government statement.
The three domestic television channels, along with regional, national and external radio stations, cost Greece €300 million a year, and Kedikoglou said it had become a “typical case of … incredible waste”.
Thousands gathered outside ERT’s headquarters after the announcement, vowing to fight the decision, and riot police blocked the entrance to a studio in central Athens where protesters had unfolded a banner reading “Down with the junta, ERT won’t close!”.
“We will broadcast what appears to be our last news bulletin with the composure, consistency and professionalism that we are used to.”
Private TV stations took their live shows off air for six hours in a display of solidarity, replacing them with re-runs and adverts. None ran the traditional 8 pm news bulletin.
The announcement followed an embarrassing failure on Monday to find a buyer for the gas firm DEPA as part of a broad sell-off of state assets, leaving Greece short of the cash to meet its bailout targets.
STRAINS IN GOVERNMENT
At the protest rally, opposition leader Alexis Tsipras called the closure “a coup, not only against ERT workers but against the Greek people”, and accused the government of the “historic responsibility of gagging state TV”.
The decision was made by ministerial decree, meaning that it could be implemented without reference to parliament.
“National broadcasters are more important than ever at times of national difficulty,” he wrote.
Inspectors from the “troika” of lenders – the European Union, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank – arrived in Athens on Monday for their latest inspection of Greece‘s progress in saving money under the bailout programme.
“PASOK is in favour of brave, substantial state reforms,” it said. “It is, however, against fleeting and dangerous moves that are aimed to impress.”
Before the failure of the DEPA sale, Greece had been enjoying unexpected optimism from investors, who had pushed down bond yields and spurred talk of a recovery, a year after Greece almost crashed out of the euro zone.