Without warning, Greece shutters its public broadcaster

The shock closure of ERT, which leaves some 2,600 journalists out of work, is Greece's first mass layoff as it tries to cut costs as demanded by its European creditors.

John Kolesidis/Reuters
Employees work at a control room of the Greek state television ERT headquarters in Athens today. Greece's fragile government faced an internal revolt and fierce public protest on Wednesday over the sudden closure of state broadcaster ERT. The sign reads: 'The revolution will not be televised.'

The television anchor's last words were flustered.

“The riot police are moving toward the transmitters to switch them off.... This is official information we have,” were the final words he uttered near midnight Tuesday.

Then the screen at Greek public broadcaster ERT went black.

The scene came just five hours after the government's abrupt announcement that it was shutting down ERT immediately as part of cost-cutting measures.

The shutdown of the radio and television broadcaster is the first of a series of planned closures of Greek public institutions – part of an agreement with international creditors to reduce the national debt. In order to secure bailout funds from the troika of the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, Greece agreed to fire 2,000 civil servants by the end of the year and 15,000 by the end of 2014. ERT had 2,656 employees.

Axing Greece's BBC

ERT was founded in 1938, and is patterned along the lines of the British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC). Its focus is not on profit-making, but rather it aims to inform, educate, and broadcast noncommercial programs eschewed by private television networks, according to its mission statement.

ERT is also the only channel that broadcasts in remote Greek villages, with branches throughout rural Greece covering local news. Many renowned Greek figures have worked for the company, such as composer Manos Chatzidakis – he took over the broadcaster's Third Radio Channel in 1975, changing its format to focus on classical music and culture. ERT has informed generations of Greeks, because until 1989 there were no private TV channels in Greece.

And ERT has had an international reach as well: its Kosmos 93.6 radio station has broadcast worldwide to serve the Greek diaspora. The station was praised for its ability to bring the 2004 Athens Olympics into living rooms worldwide.

But government spokesman and former ERT news presenter Simos Kedikoglou, announcing ERT's closure yesterday, called the broadcaster "a breeding farm for scandal,” an allusion to nepotism at the institution. For many years, governments of both traditional ruling parties, the conservative New Democracy and center-left PASOK, have hired not on merit but on political connections. Neither party had previously attempted to change the practice, however. 

“ERT is a characteristic case of unique opacity and unbelievable waste – and that ends today," Mr. Kedikoglou, a member of New Democracy, said. The broadcaster "costs three to seven times as much as other TV stations and four to six times the personnel – for a very small viewership, about half that of an average private station."

"The government has decided to close ERT and replace it with a modern television and radio broadcaster as soon as possible," he added. "The employees of ERT may apply."

Unexpected reversal

Kedikoglou's comments are an about-face for him and New Democracy from 19 months ago. At that time, while his party was in the opposition, they opposed a move by the then-current government to shut down one of ERT’s three TV channels.

"ERT is a public asset," he said then. "Shrinking it is only beneficial to private and foreign interests and we will not allow this to happen." He expressed bewilderment over what benefits would accrue from cutbacks to the broadcaster.

Critics of ERT's closure are making similar comments today.

“The argument that ERT is insolvent doesn't hold up because until recently, it was a profitable [organization],” says Giorgos Plios, president of the Department of Communications and Media at the University of Athens.

“It does have some debts, but they’re smaller than those the private TV stations have. And let's not forget that 25 percent of its profits go to state coffers – it is unthinkable not to have a public radio and TV station in a European country.”

Some say this particular shutdown is a diversion.

“It’s not impossible that some advisers wondered that 'if we do this, it will shift world attention to this, instead of the Russians' interest in [the] privatization [of Greece's natural gas company],” says Yannis Metaksa, professor of political science at the University of Athens and also a former ERT president.

Protests from journalists

Meanwhile, before the broadcast transmission went dark, ERT journalists reacted by streaming programming through the ERT website while asking their audience to join them at protests at the broadcaster's headquarters in Athens and their stations throughout Greece. From the early evening on, riot police appeared outside the Athens headquarters and blocked some employees from entering the building.

“There’s just one word to describe this and that’s fascism,” says Katerina Theodorakopoulou, sitting outside the ERT headquarters this morning for a second day with her fellow journalism students. “Of course, we would have like to have worked for ERT – we were [just] discussing that it has offers the best quality programming.”

Nikos Leandros, journalism professor at Panteion University in Athens, says the decision “increases unemployment among journalists and filmmakers tremendously and it deeply affect their social security funds, as ERT was one of the few institutions that [actually] paid their pension contributions.”

Many say that this move will just benefit the private media companies by removing competition.

"By staging a coup and by ignoring the [Greek] Constitution and the parliamentary process, they’re trying to pursue the sale of public property to the benefit of the feudal lords of the [private] media,” says Dimitris Trimis, president of the Union of Print-Journalists in Athens. "The coup will not be allowed."

Greece's journalist unions are staging rolling strikes at private broadcasters to protest ERT's closure. The country's two largest labor unions have also called for a 24-hour strike Thursday.

Marina Rigou contributed to this report.

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