Employees of the Greek national broadcaster ERT who vowed to stay on the air even as the government said the TV and radio stations funded by mandatory payments in electric bills would close and then re-open with a drastically reduced staff were stunned when the transmitting signals were suddenly shut off at 11 p.m. on June 11, leaving the stations dark, except for those who could see it on the Internet or paid satellite systems.
The broadcaster had been brutally critical all day of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’ decision to shut it down without warning as part of a plan to shed 15,000 workers on the orders of international lenders by the end of 2014. Samaras has so far exempted Parliament workers from further pay cuts or job losses.
The transmitter atop Mt. Parnitha was discontinued, then followed the cutoff of ET-3 in Thessaloniki, and at other stations in Patra, Kefalonia and Ithaca.
ERT consisted of five TV channels, ET-1, NET, ET-3, ERT World and ERT-HD as well as seven radio stations in Athens, three in Thessaloniki, 19 peripheral radio stations across the country, symphonic orchestra and one of modern music as well as a choir. It also had magazines, and a website www.ert.gr, digital archives, web TV at www.ert.gr/webtv, some 2,324 regular employees and 792 provisional workers.
Samaras, the New Democracy Conservative leader, took the action over the objections of his coalition partners, the PASOK Socialists and Democratic Left (DIMAR) who weren’t notified until earlier in the day. The union representing the workers said 2600 of the 2800 workers would lose their jobs, but the government said the broadcaster was full of dead wood – hired over the years by New Democracy and PASOK administrations in return for votes as it did in packing other government agencies and entities, helping create the country’s crushing economic crisis.
Although there had been rumors over the past few days that the government would opt for closing ERT as a way to reduce civil servant numbers, the announcement by spokesman Simos Kedikoglou took millions of Greeks by surprise. Kedikoglou claimed that ERT suffered from a “lack of transparency” and was a source of waste.
“The Greek people are paying for ERT, which has three times, even eight times, as much staff as it needs,” he said. The government, he said, was sacrificing one of the public sector’s “sacred cows.” Greeks pay roughly 300 million euros ($400 million) a year in license fees. Kedikoglou said that these charges would not apply until a leaner and more efficient public broadcaster is set up but no timetable was given. The decision leaves Greece for now without a national broadcaster.
It was known to the Greek media that Samaras had discussed the closure of ERT with several close advisers and government officials and saw the move as one that would show his determination to carry out the structural reforms being demanded by Greece’s lenders, the Troika of the European Union-International Monetary Fund-European Central Bank (EU-IMF-ECB) although he has left alone other bloated state enterprises.
Sourced leaked that the premier brought up the issue with his coalition partners, Evangelos Venizelos of PASOK and Fotis Kouvelis of DIMAR and that they refused to give their consent for ERT to be closed down even though Greece has promised the Troika it would sack 2,000 civil servants this summer, 4,000 by the end of the year and 14,000 by the end of 2014.
The ministers from the two junior parties did not sign the legislative act published in the Government Gazette yesterday allowing public enterprises to be shut down but can do nothing about it, leaving them no where to turn unless they decide to walk away from the coalition, which would bring down the government. They have previously said they wouldn’t do that.
The announcement prompted terse responses from both coalition partners, who said they had not been involved in the decision, and sharp criticism from opposition parties. “The state broadcaster cannot be closed down,” PASOK said in a statement, adding that the party supported “bold and genuine reforms” but opposed “irresponsible and dangerous public relations stunts.”
PASOK spokesman Yiannis Maniatis also slammed New Democracy for sidelining the junior partners. “A coalition government comprising three partners cannot function through faits accomplis,“ Maniatis said, adding that “important matters must be decided by all party leaders.”
DIMAR issued a statement saying that it “radically disagreed” with the closure of ERT, adding that it was “inconceivable” for a European country not to have a state television channel, even for an hour.
SYRIZA leader, Alexis Tsipras, called on both coalition partners to take “a clear position” on the move, which he described as “a coup d’etat” and said his party was considering bringing a censure motion against the government if it goes ahead with the closure.