Greek broadcaster closure sparks major strike

Public services paralysed as workers protest government's decision to shut down ERT as part of austerity measures.

    Public services have ground to a halt in Greece as unions begin 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 during Thursday's strike.

    Air traffic controllers were due to participate in a two-hour work stoppage starting from 1200 GMT and broadcast journalists held an indefinite strike, prompting private television broadcasters to shut down as well.

    The socialist and moderate leftist parties supporting the coalition government had called the decision on ERT "unacceptable".

    A government source said late on Wednesday that Prime Minister Antonis Samaras would confer over the issue with his coalition partners.

    Al Jazeera's John Psaropoulos, reporting from Athens, said the strike was already causing disruption in the capital.

    Our correspondent said that while some trains and trams were still working, the rest of the transport system, including buses and regional commuter networks, had shut down.

    He also reported that there was also a growing protest outside the ERT headquarters. 

    The government described its decision to shut the 75-year-old ERT as a temporary move before its relaunch in slimmed-down form.

    'Autocractic decision'

    Simos Kedikoglou, spokesman for the government and a former state TV journalist, has described ERT as a "haven of waste".

    "ERT is a typical example of unique lack of transparency and incredible waste. And that ends today," he said.

    However, the move has angered the coalition partners keeping Samaras in power, restoring an atmosphere of crisis in a country that had seemed to be emerging from a political meltdown caused by near-bankruptcy.

    "What a lot of people have been saying to us is that, they are not, in principle, opposed to the idea of cleaning up the state machinery in general, and even the state broadcaster," Al Jazeera's Psaropoulos said. "But people are against the autocratic nature" of the decision. 

    Despite the closure of ERT, it continues to broadcast the latest news through its website 

    Representing about 2.5 million workers, the unions have gone on strike repeatedly since Europe was hit by a debt crisis in late 2009, although action has been less frequent and more muted lately than last year when marches frequently turned violent.

    The last nationwide strike was in February.

    Separately, a union representing journalists in Athens has called an indefinite strike of members, preventing some newspapers from appearing and forcing commercial broadcasters to air reruns of sitcoms and soap operas instead of the news.

    ERT has shed viewers with the rise of commercial television, and its three statewide channels had a combined audience share of only 13 percent.

    Many Greeks regard ERT as a wasteful source of patronage jobs for political parties. But the abruptness with which it was shut - with newscasters cut off in mid-sentence - was a shock.

    The opposition's rhetoric was no less heated. Addressing protesting ERT workers at a studio in Greece's second biggest city Thessaloniki, Alexis Tsipras, a leftwing politician, called on Greeks to defend democracy.

    "What we experienced yesterday was unprecedented, not only for Greece but for all of Europe," Tsipras said. "Public television goes dark only in two circumstances: when a country is occupied by foreign forces or when there is a coup."

    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 increases, which has exacerbated a recession and forced tens of thousands of businesses to close, sending unemployment to a record of 27 percent.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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