State broadcaster’s end a blow to Greek identity

June 12, 2013

When Nazi troops marched into Greece’s nearly deserted capital on April 27, 1941, radio announcer Costas Stavropoulos of the Hellenic Broadcasting Corp. announced the grim news. He urged his compatriots not to listen to future Nazi radio transmissions and signed off with the Greek national anthem.

That moment in Greek broadcasting history is indelibly etched into the country’s collective memory.

It was the only time the state broadcaster, also known as ERT, had ceased to operate since its birth in 1938. That is, until Tuesday, when Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’s government shut down ERT and fired its 2,500 employees to prove to Greece’s international lenders that he is serious about cutting the country’s bloated public sector. The broadcaster’s TV and radio signals went dead early Wednesday.

That decision might just bring down Samaras’s conservative-led coalition government, which lambasted the broadcaster for its “incredible waste.” Two of the coalition’s three parties — Pasok, or the Socialist party, and the Democratic Left — still want to discuss the possibility of keeping ERT going.

The country’s two largest labor unions called a 24-hour general strike for Thursday to protest the move, and flights from Greece’s airports were set to halt for two hours the same day. Protesters gathered Wednesday outside the broadcaster’s headquarters north of Athens for a second day as ERT’s journalists defied the closure order and continued a live Internet broadcast.

Journalist unions also launched rolling 24-hour strikes, halting news programs on Greece’s privately owned broadcasters, while the government’s center-left coalition partners demanded that ERT’s closure be reversed.

Like other state-run companies in debt-drowned Greece, ERT over its 75 years was exposed to the kind of notorious political patronage that the country is famous for. As successive governments meted out jobs in exchange for votes, Greece’s swelling ranks of public employees helped push the country to near-financial ruin and in need of tens of billions in aid starting in 2010 from its 16 euro-zone partners.

Despite that, ERT has forged a deep connection with ordinary Greeks, becoming the country’s voice at home and to the world, especially in the absence of private broadcasting, which came about only in 1989.

“ERT has been woven into Greeks’ own identity,” said Christodoulos Yiallourides, a professor of social and political science at Athens’s Panteion University. “What’s happening is a mistake. Certainly you need to make reforms and changes, but not like this. You don’t shut down ERT, you try and fix it.”

Moreover, Greeks trusted ERT to provide balanced, objective news reports because its journalists weren’t under the kind of commercial advertising pressures faced by private news outlets.

Yiallourides warned that the government’s surprise decision could reignite social unrest.

The government has defended the move, insisting that a new, more efficient, less costly public broadcaster would be launched before the end of the summer. Still, it faces a political battle: The executive order to close ERT requires ratification by Parliament within three months but faces failure if it is not backed by all the coalition’s members.

— Associated Press

Hadjicostis reported from Cyprus.

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