Political Pressure Mounts After Greece Pulls Plug on Public Broadcaster

Greek Protests Outside Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation 2013 H

The Greek Prime Minister defends the shutdown of ERT amid public protests and accusations of an “institutional coup.”

Political pressure continues to mount on the Greek government amid public protests sparked by last night's shutdown of Greek public broadcaster, the Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation or ERT.

The protests outside ERT's headquarters in Athens began shortly after the country's conservative government announced Tuesday it would pull the plug on the state-funded broadcaster, which produces three national TV channels as well as numerous radio stations. They continued to grow after ERT's free-to-air signals were switched off, though the broadcaster continued to carry live news programming – mainly on the closure and the protests – over the Internet.

By late afternoon, thousands had rallied outside ERT offices, while Greek unions called for a general strike in solidarity with the network's more than 2,600 employees, all of whom were laid off as a result of the executive order. The government said the radical move to shut down the ERT was part of the country's wide-ranging austerity program.

Greece has had to slash public funding in order to secure much needed bail out funds from the so-called fiscal “troika”: the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank, which have made further assistance for the troubled nation conditional on it reducing its huge debt burden. The ERT costs Greek taxpayers around $400 million (€300 million) a year – it is funded via a monthly levy on citizens' electric bills.

Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras has called the broadcaster “a front of opacity and waste." He said the closure is only temporary and that a slimmed-down, more cost-efficient ERT will begin broadcasting soon.

That promise hasn't been enough to satisfy protestors or the government opposition. Greek opposition leader Alexis Tsipras on Wednesday called the closure “illegal” and “an institutional coup.” Tsipras called on the country's president, Karolos Papoulias to cancel the executive order closing ERT and to initiate a debate in the country's parliament.

Evangelos Venizelos, leader of the socialist Pasok party, which supports the current government, has called on the Greek cabinet to meet and discuss the ERT closure. If the protests surrounding the shutdown continue, commentators have speculated it could lead to vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Samaras' government.

Even the country's orthodox church has weighed in, with Archbishop Ieronymos saying ERT's employees were being "sacrificed" to pay for decades of wasteful administration.

The European Broadcasting Union, the Swiss-based association representing Europe's national public broadcasters, has also called on Mr. Samaras to reverse his decision.