Skip to main content

An employee of the Greece state broadcaster ERT gives instructions in front of monitors in the control room at the television station's headquarters in Athens, on Tuesday, June 18, 2013. State TV channels in Greece remained off-air Tuesday as the political storm over the future of public broadcaster ERT rages on despite a court ruling that the prime minister's decision to pull the plug was wrong. Fired ERT workers have continued live broadcasts streamed online and satellite, helped by the Geneva, Switzerland-based European Broadcasting Union, which represents the continent's public broadcasters.Petros Giannakouris/The Associated Press

Last Tuesday, a few days short of the first anniversary of his election, Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras took the biggest risk of his political career. With only a few minutes notice, he pulled the plug on the Hellenic Broadcasting Corp., throwing almost 2,700 state employees out of work. It was the Greek equivalent of closing the CBC or the BBC.

The kill-off was in the name of austerity. The Greek government had agreed that several thousand state jobs had to go this year in an effort to trim the country's gaping budget deficit and please its paymasters at the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund, which had bailed Greece out twice since 2010. But it came as a shock to the broadcaster (known as ERT) that Mr. Samaras would pick such a high-profile institution for a mass cull.

Certainly, Mr. Samaras had all but called it a criminal organization. In recent days, he or his spokesmen have called ERT "one of the bastions of obscurity and privileges" and "a haven of waste" and a "sinful" component of a state that has become a "Jurassic Park of inefficiency and corruption."

It was well known that ERT jobs were doled out to friends and political hacks. The company was suspected of having "phantom" employees – employees who received full salaries while never, or rarely, showing up for work.

"They're shutting us down," newsreader Stavroula Christofilea told stunned viewers on Tuesday evening. Minutes later, the broadcaster faded to black and, suddenly, Mr. Samaras's government was in trouble.

The backlash was swift and vicious – from the dozen or so unions that represent Greece's public and private journalists, the opposition parties and the Prime Minister's own coalition partners – leading to speculation that the government would fall.

On Thursday, Greece was crippled by a general strike and mass protests, the first since the 2011-2012 winter of discontent. The vast ERT building in an Athens suburb was occupied by several hundred fired employees who defied the government by devising, with sporadic success, clever ways to deliver a few programs to viewers.

If that weren't bad enough for the image of Mr. Samaras and his centre-right New Democracy party, his own coalition partners were in a fighting mood. Democratic Left Leader Fotis Kouvelis was so angry about the destruction of ERT that he essentially threatened to seek revenge through the electorate. "We're not opting for elections," he said, in an interview with The Associated Press on Saturday. "[But] if Mr. Samaras is opting for elections … he should assume the responsibility for it."

At a protest rally two days later, Alexis Tsipras, leader of the main opposition party, Syriza (which nearly won the June, 2012, general election), predicted that Mr. Samaras's political career would fade to black too. "You're done, Mr. Samaras. … You have embarrassed the country internationally," he said, referring to the condemnation of the ERT closure by journalists and advocates of other European state broadcasters.

Perhaps not, for Mr. Samaras's bold gamble went from apparent political suicide to apparent success on Monday night.

That's when Greece's top administrative court ordered ERT back on the air. But the court didn't say when or in what form, meaning that Mr. Samaras's stated goal killing the old ERT – apparently accomplished already – and replacing it with a new and much smaller broadcaster remains intact. At the same time, the court order allowed the two coalition partners to declare a victory of sorts. Talk of an early election has since stopped.

Some journalists and union leaders said that as much as they deplore Mr. Samaras's decision to shut down ERT, they give him credit for political savvy. "Shutting ERT amounted to a political challenge to the other partners in the coalition," Nicholas Tsimpidas, political editor of ERT Radio and a union representative for ERT's journalist, said in an interview. "He in effect said: 'If you want to overthrow this government, please do it.' They didn't and now he has sent the message that he can do anything."

It is not known whether Mr. Samaras harboured plans to shut ERT for months or whether it was a last-minute decision to meet the conditions set out by the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund for Greece's second bailout, worth about €130-billion, negotiated early last year. The EC and IMF have expressed frustration that the promised cuts in Greece's notoriously bloated and inefficient civil service have barely started (Greece, with 700,000 civil servants and a population of 11 million has, relatively speaking, one of the biggest bureaucracies in the Western world).

By Tuesday afternoon, ERT was still not officially back on the air. Inside the ERT building, the initial jubilation over the court ruling had turned into despair.

None of the former ERT employees scrambling to use the Internet and analogue signals to keep a few ERT news programs going knew if they would be rehired. "We don't know when the normal signal will come back even though the court said it has to come back," said Yiorgos Youkakis, 49, a radio host for an ERT morning show. "This is shocking. This is the first time a public broadcaster in Europe has been shut down."