Journalists and civil society groups across Europe expressed outrage over the Greek government’s abrupt closure of its public broadcasting system Tuesday evening.

Some 2,655 employees were officially laid off from Hellenic Radio and Television, known as ERT, which runs four television channels, seven national radio stations, and 19 regional radio programs.

“This is a blow to democracy,” ERT-NET newscaster Antonis Alafogiorgos told his audience toward the end of the live TV broadcast Tuesday.

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras announced his decision Tuesday afternoon despite opposition from his coalition party allies. The move was needed, he said, in a cost-cutting move for the government, whose country has been teetering on bankruptcy for more than two years.

Samaras added that the unpopular TV channels would be reorganized and eventually restarted. Laid off employees may apply for jobs at the newly constituted station, he said.

“We want to create a new broadcaster according to the latest international standards. Those who resist are not defending public broadcasting, they are defending this ERT that existed until yesterday,” Samaras said Wednesday in a speech.

Greek unions called for a 24-hour strike after thousands of journalists and their supporters protested the government’s decision throughout the night.

Rogue laid off journalists, with the help of the European Broadcasting Union, a lobby group representing the continent’s public service broadcasters, have erected a satellite in the ERT parking lot and continue to broadcast. Various websites are also livestreaming ERT content.

“We are protesting the anti-democratic way it’s been handled,” said Ben Steward, a spokesman at the EBU in Geneva.

The Greek government summarily shut down a public broadcaster, which has a mandate to represent all members of society independent of the government, he said. “It’s grossly limiting pluralism.”

Evangelos Venizelos, head of government coalition partner PASOK, said in a statement that his party strongly objected to the unilateral move by Samaras:

The Greek people do not want to interrupt the operation of public service broadcasting. They recognize the role of ERT and realize that there are problems and that it needs radical reorganization and reform. But in any case this can not be done blindly, you can not simply close to the transmitter. … It cannot be from one day to another without consultation or without a comprehensive plan ready.

Dunja Mijatovic, the Freedom of the Media representative at the Organization of Security and Cooperation, urged Greek authorities to immediately establish a new public broadcaster and guaranteeing full editorial and financial independence.

“The authorities should have rather gradually restructured,” Mijatovic said. “Having access to unbiased news is especially important in difficult times.”

Unlike other western European countries, private stations dominate in Greece. Ant1 and Megad attract more than half of Greek audiences each night and nab the bulk of advertising revenues.

ERT, which began broadcasting in 1938, operates three public channels and holds a 14-percent market share. Its news and information station, ERT-NET, is the fifth most-watched channel in Greece. ERT 3, a general all-around station airing sports, cultural, and information shows, is the seventh most popular station. The children’s channel, ET 1, ranks eighth.

“It’s horribly underfunded,” said EBU’s Steward. Funding comes from direct payment of 4.30 euros ($6) added monthly to electricity bills. Its total 2011 budget of 328.76 million euros is 15 per cent lower than it was in 2008, when Greece’s budget woes began.

In a statement, the European Commission made it clear that the decision to shut down ERT was made by the Greek government alone.

While the shuttering of ERT’s entire operation in one go is a first in Europe, it is not the only cash-strapped country to lay off journalists. Last December, Spain’s Telemadrid laid off more than 900 media professionals. A group of Spain’s laid-off workers calling itself Salvemos Telemadrid sent a message of solidarity to their Greek counterparts.

“Information and public service media are citizens’ rights that cannot be subordinated,” the group’s statement said.

 

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Alison Langley has more than 25 years experience in journalism as a reporter and editor. Her stories have appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times, The Guardian, The FT and The Independent. She currently lectures in journalism at Fachhochschule Wien and Webster University Vienna.