Athens announced the surprise closure with immediate effect of its state broadcaster on Tuesday evening (11 June), in a desperate move to slash public sector jobs and meet the terms of a bailout imposed by the Troika of international creditors – the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
Greece announced yesterday 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 relaunching 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.
The decision was taken as part of the emergency powers granted to the Finance Minister to stop transmissions with immediate effect, leaving Greek citizens wishing to watch ERT programmes in front of black screens.
"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!".
"Today is Tuesday, June 11, and it is a difficult day," anchorwoman Elli Stai told viewers from the studio as crowds of workers outside chanted and clapped.
"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 p.m. 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
The closure of ERT immediately opened cracks in Prime Minister Antonis Samaras's fragile three-party coalition, whose two junior partners protested that they had not been consulted.
"Public broadcasting can't shut down," said Yannis Maniatis, a senior official of the Socialist PASOK party. "A three-way coalition doesn't work with 'faits accomplis'."
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.
"Journalism is being persecuted. We won't allow the voice of Greece to be silenced," said George Savvidis, the chief of journalists' labour union POESY.
Kedikoglou said ERT's staff would be encouraged to apply for jobs in a relaunched broadcaster, but did not spell out what this would look like.
European Broadcasting Union President Jean Paul Philippot wrote to Samaras urging him to reverse the decision.
"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 linked ERT's closure with a demand by the troika for 2,000 layoffs in the state sector by August, and called for an immediate meeting of party leaders.
"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.
In a statement published today (11 June), the European Commission distanced itself with the shutting down the Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation (ERT).
The EU executive says it has “taken note” of the decision by the Greek authorities to close down ERT, “a decision taken in full autonomy”.
“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. The decision of the Greek authorities should be seen in the context of the major and necessary efforts that the authorities are taking to modernise the Greek economy. Those include improving its efficiency and effectiveness of the public sector.
“The Commission understands the difficult situation of ERT staff and expects the announced dismissals to be carried out in full accordance with the applicable legal framework.
“The Commission supports the role of public broadcasting as an integral part of European democracy. The Treaty makes it clear that the governance and strategic choices on public service broadcasting lie with Member States. So while the Commission cannot prescribe Member States how to organise their public service broadcaster, we would like to highlight the role of public service broadcasters regarding European values in all economic circumstances, for the sake of media pluralism, media freedom and media quality and for the expression of cultural diversity. So we welcome the commitment of the Greek government to launch a media actor that fulfils the important role of public broadcasting and is financially sustainable,” the statement ends.
In a statement, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) expressed “profound dismay” at the announcement that ERT – a founding Member of the EBU in 1950 – has been shut down with immediate effect.
Speaking “on behalf of Europe’s entire public service media community”, the EBU sent a letter to Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras urging him “to use all his powers to immediately reverse this decision”.
“The existence of public service media and their independence from government lie at the heart of democratic societies, and therefore any far-reaching changes to the public media system should only be decided after an open and inclusive democratic debate in Parliament – and not through a simple agreement between two government ministers,” said the President of the EBU, Jean Paul Philippot and the EBU Director General, Ingrid Deltenre.
“While we recognise the need to make budgetary savings, national broadcasters are more important than ever at times of national difficulty. This is not to say that ERT need be managed less efficiently than a private company. Naturally, all public funds must be spent with the greatest of care.”