Greek state TV and radio were gradually pulled off the air late Tuesday, hours after the government said it would temporarily close all state-run broadcasts and lay off about 2,500 workers as part of a cost-cutting drive demanded by the bailed-out country's international creditors.
The conservative-led government said the Hellenic Broadcasting Corp., or ERT, will reopen "as soon as possible" with a new, smaller workforce. It wasn't immediately clear how long that would take, and whether all stations would reopen.
"Congratulations to the Greek government," newscaster Antonis Alafogiorgos said toward the end of ERT's main TV live broadcast. "This is a blow to democracy," he added, as thousands of media workers and supporters protested the closure outside the company's headquarters in the Athens suburb of Aghia Paraskevi.
The surprise move heralds the first direct public sector layoffs in more than three years of painful austerity, which have already cost nearly 1 million private sector jobs. The announcement widened cracks in the year-old governing coalition, with both minority partners condemning the corporation's suspension, while international journalists' associations expressed dismay.
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ERT TV and radio started to be yanked off the air in several parts of the country around 11 p.m. (2000 GMT) Tuesday, about an hour before the government said all signals would go dead, although satellite broadcasts continued.
"I was hoping up until the last minute that the reports were not true. It's unbelievable," news reader Stavroula Christofilea said moments after the move was announced.
A Finance Ministry statement said ERT has been formally disbanded, and authorities would "secure" the corporation's facilities. Riot police deployed outside ERT buildings in several parts of Greece, but no clashes were reported.
Government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou — a former state TV journalist — described ERT as a "haven of waste" and said its 2,500 employees will be compensated.
"ERT is a typical example of a unique lack of transparency and incredible waste. And that ends today," Kedikoglou said. "It 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."
Debt-stifled Greece has depended on rescue loans from its European partners and the International Monetary Fund since May 2010. In exchange, it imposed deeply resented income cuts and tax hikes, which exacerbated a crippling recession and forced tens of thousands of businesses to close, sending unemployment to a record of 27 percent. As part of the bailout agreement, Greece's government pledged to cut 15,000 state jobs by 2015, out of a total of about 600,000.
While lacking the prestige and popularity of other state broadcasters — such as Britain's BBC — ERT was long seen as a bastion of quality programming in a media landscape dominated by commercial stations. But it was also used by successive governments to provide safe jobs for political favorites, and, while nominally independent, devoted considerable time and effort to showcasing administration policies.
The broadcaster is largely state-funded, with every Greek household paying a fee through its electricity bills — whether they have a TV set or not.
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Both minority partners in the fragile governing coalition said they opposed ERT's closure through a ministerial decree that takes immediate effect. The measure still requires eventual parliamentary approval, which both Socialist PASOK and the Democratic Left say they will withhold.
PASOK accused Prime Minister Antonis Samaras' majority conservatives of ignoring its smaller partners in the coalition formed last summer to end a political crisis that threatened to push Greece out of the 17-member euro currency union. The three parties were already squabbling over non-austerity-related legislation, but it is unclear how severe the new rift is.