ATHENS, Jun 13 – Public services ground to a halt in Greece on Thursday as unions launched a 24-hour general strike in protest over the government’s decision to shut down public broadcaster ERT as part of sweeping cost-cutting measures.
Trains stood still, hospitals were operating on emergency footing and government offices were shut across the country as part of the action.
Air traffic controllers were due to participate in a two-hour work stoppage starting from 1200 GMT and broadcast journalists held an indefinite strike because of the government’s shock move.
The socialist and moderate leftist parties supporting the coalition government had called the decision on ERT “unacceptable” and a government source said late Wednesday that Prime Minister Antonis Samaras would confer over the issue with his coalition partners.
“The prime minister, who always seeks dialogue, will telephone the political leaders for a meeting in the coming days,” the government source said.
Samaras had defended the closure, saying earlier on Wednesday: “We are eliminating a hotbed of opacity and waste… We are protecting the public interest.”
The broadcaster’s television and radio stations were abruptly pulled off air late Tuesday and its nearly 2,700 staff suspended as part of the conservative-led coalition government’s deeply unpopular austerity drive.
“The ERT lockup amounts to a coup d’etat,” leading union GSEE said in a statement as it announced Thursday’s general strike, the crisis-hit country’s third such action this year.
There was also a protest by journalists in neighbouring Cyprus, where there are fears that the public broadcaster there could go the same way as the government looks to slash spending in the island’s own austerity drive.
The Samaras administration quickly presented legislation creating a new broadcaster called New Hellenic Radio, Internet and Television (NERIT) to replace the 60-year-old ERT.
“You can’t fix a car while it is running, you have to take it off the road,” government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou told journalists.
“It is a temporary postponement…. Everything will pass by parliament, I assure you it’s all legal,” he said, promising a “restart” during the summer.
But coalition partners insisted that even though the government must fight the crisis, this could only be done in “good faith” and through consensus.
The closure of ERT has created the semblance “of a political and institutional crisis,” Socialist leader Evangelos Venizelos said.
The sudden shutdown of ERT has caused a national uproar, with journalists kicking off their strike on Wednesday while defiant staff staged sit-ins in Athens and Greece’s second-largest city Thessaloniki.
Riot police were stationed outside ERT offices around the country to prevent “any destruction”, said Kedikoglou, himself a former journalist at the organisation.
The government has imposed sweeping public cutbacks demanded by the debt-laden country’s international lenders in return for a massive bailout.
However, the spokesman insisted ERT’s closure was not part of Greece’s bailout obligations to the European Union, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank.
Greece is caught in a six-year recession which critics say has been exacerbated by successive pay and pension cuts imposed at the behest of its creditors.
Unemployment now exceeds 26 percent, with half of young people out of work.
ERT employees, stunned by the sudden loss of their jobs, were defiantly transmitting rogue broadcasts on the Internet and the Communist party channel, vowing to resist the shutdown.
The European Union said it did not question the government decision but pointed out that public broadcasting was “an integral part of European democracy”.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, on a visit to Spain, wondered whether the closure was the “right way to get people to love political decisions”.
“Closing a public television is never good news,” Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo added.
Media observers acknowledge that ERT has a long history of mismanagement and political meddling, but say the Samaras administration is not free of blame.
Recent controversial decisions include the appointment of a former deputy minister’s daughter as a show host, and the ousting of two journalists who had criticised a minister on air.
Messages of support have poured in from the Greek diaspora — for whom ERT is a vital link to the homeland — and the Orthodox Church.
The government said ERT would reopen with around half its current 2,655 employees.
The shutdown followed months of work stoppages by ERT employees angry at plans to restructure the broadcaster.
Athens has pledged to cut 4,000 state-sector jobs this year and another 11,000 in 2014 to keep drawing rescue loans under the EU-IMF package.