Ignorning a government order to leave the building, and with riot police assembled at vantage points around Athens, journalists from ERT, the public broadcaster that was shut down almost immediately on June 11 stayed on the air through the air, the signal available on digital channels and the Internet.
They denounced Prime Minister Antonis Samaras for the dramatic decision to close the TV and radio operations to save money as ordered by international lenders during a crushign economic crisis.
Greece had to cut 2,000 workers off payrolls and the union representing the workers said some 2,600 were fired immediately. The government said ERT would come back later this year with a pared-down budget and staff and with what critics said would be only government supporters to quell dissension and censor anti-government views.
ERT, like many public agencies, has been seen as a dumping ground for patronage over the years and wildly overstaffed and some critics said that included Samaras putting highly-paid workers on the payroll without any work to do.
Government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou – a former journalist at ERT – said the agency was corrupt and mismanaged, but didn’t report any of that while he was working there. The decision split the coalition government led by Samaras, the New Democracy Conservative leader who has to rely on his partners, the PASOK Socialists and tiny Democratic Left (DIMAR) for their votes in Parliament, which will at some point have to ratify the decision taken by an executive decree without consulting lawmakers.
Backed by thousands of protesters that gathered outside ERT’s headquarters in Aghia Paraskevi, northeastern Athens, the journalists kept broadcasting through the night and used their programs to attack the government for choosing to shut the organization down.
Staff said that ERT’s CEO Emilios Latsios had issued instructions asking employees to leave all of the broadcaster’s buildings or face being arrested as illegal occupiers. However, there was no police intervention over night to remove journalists.
Kedikoglou argued that ERT had become bloated and needed to be overhauled but PASOK and Democratic Left said they had not given their consent for it to be shut down. He said the new broadcaster would have an annual budget of 100 million euros, rather than the 300 million that ERT currently gets from license fees levied via electricity bills.
SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras appeared live on ERT’s main channel, NET, at around 3 a.m. on June 12 to voice his opposition to the closure. He said that he had spoken to President Karolos Papoulias about the matter and claimed that the veteran politician was “troubled” by the move to take ERT off air although the President consented to the decree and signed it.
Tsipras said he would meet Papoulias at noon on Wednesday to discuss the matter as he claimed that the government’s legislative act allowing public enterprises, like ERT, to be shut down would not pass through Parliament.
The Athens Journalists’ Union (ESIEA) called a 48-hour strike from 6 a.m. on June 12 on TV and radio stations to protest the closure of ERT. ESIEA said newspaper journalists would strike on June 13 for 24 hours.
The European Federation of Journalists condemned the decision to shut down ERT. “These plans are simply absurd,” said EFJ president Mogens Blicher-Bjerregård.
“It will be a major blow to democracy, to media pluralism and to journalism as a public good in Greece, thus depriving citizens from their right to honest, level-headed and unbiased information. But it will also mean the loss of many journalists’ jobs across the country.»
The European Broadcasting Union (EBU) expressed its “profound dismay” at the Greek government’s decision to shut down Greek broadcaster ERT with immediate effect. The President of the EBU, Jean Paul Philippot and the EBU Director General, Ingrid Deltenre, highlighted the need for ERT to remain on air.
“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,” the EBU said.
“While we recognize 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,” Philippot and Deltenre said in their letter.