Greeks rage at closure of state broadcaster ERT

ERT pulled off air hours after Athens bourse downgraded to emerging market status

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 June, 2013, 1:49am

Greece's government faced an internal revolt and public outrage yesterday over the sudden closure of state broadcaster ERT, hours after the humiliation of seeing its bourse downgraded to emerging market status.

The twin setbacks, coupled with the derailing of a troubled privatisation programme, reversed a rise in investor confidence that had prompted Prime Minister Antonis Samaras to say the risk of a "Grexit" from the euro was dead and a "Greekovery" was under way.

It had to happen. ERT was a big fat feast for the political parties

The stock market traded at two-month lows after Greece became the first developed nation to be lowered to emerging market status by equity index provider MSCI.

Samaras' government declined to comment on the market reclassification as it tried to fend off a growing backlash against ERT's dramatic closure, which prompted outrage from journalists, unions and leaders across the political spectrum.

The public broadcaster was yanked off air just hours after the shutdown was announced in what the government said was a temporary measure to staunch an "incredible waste" of taxpayers' money prior to its relaunch as a slimmed-down station.

Labour unions called a 24-hour national strike for today and journalists went on an open-ended strike, forcing a news blackout on privately owned television and newspapers.

"The strike will only end when the government takes back this coup d'etat which gags information," the ESIEA union said.

Some ERT journalists occupied the broadcaster's building in defiance of government orders and broadcast over the internet, showing sombre newscasters deploring the shutdown and replaying images of thousands gathered outside to protest.

ERT's reporters from as far away as Australia appeared on air to describe the outrage of local Greek communities.

"It is our only link with our homeland," said Odysseas Mandeakis, president of the Greek community in Zambia.

Analysts said the outcry over the broadcaster posed a more immediate threat to the government than the market downgrade, even though ERT's three statewide channels have a combined audience share of barely 13 percent. About 2,000 of its 2,600 employees are non-journalists.

The government promised to relaunch ERT within weeks, saying it was taken off air so suddenly only due to fears that workers would damage state equipment.

"Some people are saying that what you are doing is outrageous," Samaras said. "It's our duty to stop what has been happening so far, stop hiding our problems and finally start dealing with them."

A senior government official said Athens was under pressure to show visiting European Union and International Monetary Fund inspectors that it had a plan to fire 2,000 state workers as required under its bailout, and the ERT shutdown was the only option available to meet the target.

The European Commission said it did not seek ERT's closure under the bailout but did not question the decision either.

Many Greeks have little love for ERT journalists and the state broadcaster is often cited as an example of inefficiency, overspending and jobs given in return for political favours.

But the speed and suddenness of the shutdown - ERT screens abruptly went black just before midnight - stunned Greeks long used to the slow pace of public sector restructuring.

"It had to happen. ERT was a big fat feast for the political parties," said Maria Panagiotou, a 65-year-old retiree.