Hounded by howls of protests within Greece and Europe over the closing of the national broadcaster ERT to meet demands by international lenders to start firing public servants, Prime Minister Antonis Samaras has reportedly agreed to let information programs resume with a limited staff until a new, pared-down operation begins later in the summer.
Greek media reported that Samaras offered to partially reinstate ERT after vehement protests over its dramatic closure threatened to derail his government as screens went blank across the country for the stations that ERT carried, as well as throughout the Diaspora where it was carried.
The New Democracy Conservative leader is being pressed by his coalition partners, the PASOK Socialists and tiny Democratic Left (DIMAR) not to close the station that for generations has been a haven for patronage hires that had grown so unwieldy that the Premier said it had become wasteful and obsolete.
“A temporary committee … can be appointed to hire a small number of (ERT) employees, so that the broadcast of information programs can begin immediately,” Samaras said in a statement.
A DIMAR spokesman said his party had rejected similar proposals hours earlier for a compromise operation of ERT until the new station was formed.
“Mr. Samaras is clearly exerting pressure, with the aim of shifting the blame onto his coalition partners,” Gerassimos Georgatos told the Associated Press. “But he bears the exclusive responsibility, with his surprise move (to close ERT down).” A PASOK statement also dismissed the prime minister’s proposal. Both minority partners want Samaras to rescind the decree closing ERT, and fully reopen it pending a waste-cutting overhaul.
The three party leaders are due to meet on June 17 for a crucial session that could decide what happens with ERT and the government itself.
Greece has been without news broadcasts for much of this week as other journalists went on indefinite strike over ERT’s closure, a move that also disrupted the reporting of school exam results.
Pressure had steadily grown on Samaras to reverse his decision, with his coalition allies digging in their heels and the European Broadcasting Union holding emergency meetings in Athens to demand ERT’s reopening.
“We ask the government to reverse this decision, we ask the government to reestablish the signal on TV, radio and web,” President Jean-Paul Philippot of the EBU, the world’s largest association of national broadcasters, told a news conference..
Samaras made the offer ahead of a meeting on June 17 with PASOK leader Evangelos Venizelos and DIMAR chief Fotis Kouvelis who opposed the shutdown of ERT. The signal was cut on June 11, with the agency’s 2,656 given five minutes notice that every one would be fired, but that 1000-1200 would be rehired to run the new venture to be called NERIT.
Samaras urged his allies to “act responsibly” to avoid “mishaps” for Greece, hinting that a split over the issue could lead to a government collapse and early elections.
A poll published June 14 found that 65 percent of Greeks are against ERT’s closure, compared to 27 percent who back the move, and some 86 percent said they are dissatisfied with the government. The VPRC poll for Greece’s TVXS news website gave a 3.1 percent margin of error.
ERT employees and journalists were protesting on June 14 for a a fourth day after the shock decision, which saw the broadcaster shut down within hours of a government legislative act.
Hundreds of ERT staff have been staging sit-ins at company offices in major cities, while the main headquarters in Athens was running a rogue broadcast on the Internet and then through a European satellite pickup after its link with the Communist party TV channel was cut by the government.
The EBU has been re-transmitting ERT’s feed on its website, as are several Greek news outlets. Samaras’s administration is under heavy pressure from Greece’s international lenders, the European Union-International Monetary Fund-European Central Bank (EU-IMF-ECB) to fire 2,500 workers by the end of June and 25,000 by the end of 2014.
ERT has a long history of nepotistic hiring practices and government-biased news coverage, but supporters said that it it also provides an invaluable link to the Greek diaspora, border areas and isolated islands.
“We are giving ERT a chance to be reborn …. the new entity will be reinstated very soon,” Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras told Parliament, accusing the opposition of shedding “crocodile tears” for a hopelessly corrupt organization with low viewer ratings although he didn’t say that it was New Democracy and PASOK who packed the operation with needless workers in return for votes.
But the conservative-led government faced accusations of authoritarianism, and even fellow EU countries have expressed alarm while critics decried the move, done through an executive decree to bypass the Parliament as a “blow to democracy,” although ERT’s critics said it is a hopeless basket case that needed to be axed and revamped.