ERT, Hellenic Broadcasting Corp, was ordered to shut down as part of public spending cuts, but remained on air via the internet
ERT journalists at the state broadcaster’s headquarters continue to work, despite a government order to close down. Photograph: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images
ERT, or Hellenic Broadcasting Corp, ceased broadcasting in some locations overnight on Tuesday as the government imposed shutdown took effect, with screens going blank and 2,500 staff fired with immediate effect. It is believed to be the first time a state broadcaster in Europe has been closed down by its government in the post-war era, with the move attracting widespread condemnation from inside Greece and also overseas.
ERT employees managed to keep the service going through the night and have continued broadcasting on the internet via Ustream, while thousands of protesters remained outside its headquarters north of Athens.
Greece's Conservative-led coalition government said the move was required to cut "incredible waste" and that it planned to reopen a smaller state broadcasting operation at a later date.
However, opposition to the ERT shutdown snowballed overnight, threatening to blow up into a major political crisis for the Greek government nearly a year after it took office.
The European Broadcasting Union, the body which represents all public service broadcasters in Europe, expressed dismay at the decision to close ERT, which became a founding member of the EBU in 1950. The EBU is on standby to step in and try and help ERT fully reopen.
Jean Paul Philippot, EBU president, and its director general Ingrid Deltenre wrote to the Greek prime minister urging him to "use all his powers to immediately reverse this decision".
In the letter, they said: "While we recognise the need to make budgetary savings, national broadcasters are more important than ever at times of national difficulty."
The European Federation of Journalists said the shutdown of Greece's state broadcaster was "absurd".
EFJ president Mogens Blicher-Bjerregård said: "These plans are simply absurd. It will be a major blow to democracy, to media pluralism and to journalism as a public good in Greece, thus depriving citizens from their right to honest, level-headed and unbiased information. But it will also mean the loss of many journalists' jobs across the country."
Greek journalist unions called a 24-hour strike, halting TV news on rival commercial channels, while Conservative prime minister Antonis Samaras is facing demands from his coalition partners, the socialist Pasok and Democratic Left party, to reverse the decision to close ERT.
The executive order to close ERT must be ratified by parliament within three months but cannot be approved without backing from Samaras's minority coalition partners.
Leftwing opposition leader Alexis Tsipras criticised the closure as "illegal" during an interview on ERT's online broadcast. "Many times the word 'coup' is used as an exaggeration," he said. "In this case, it is not an exaggeration."
Tsipras said he would meet the country's president, Karolos Papoulias, on Wednesday and ask him to cancel an executive order he signed allowing the government to close ERT.
The decision to close ERT was announced during an inspection in Athens by officials from Greece's bailout creditors. The so-called "troika" of the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund has been pressing the government to start a long-delayed programme to lay off civil servants.
Government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou promised on Tuesday to reopen ERT at an unspecified later date.
Despite tensions over a number of issues, notably related to the austerity measures demanded by Greece's international creditors, the coalition government has surprised many by surviving thus far. It has also been credited with stabilising the bailed out Greek economy and easing the threat of an exit from the Euro.
Five days ago, the IMF admitted it made mistakes in handling Greece's first €110bn (£93bn) bailout in 2010 by framing the repayment programme on a model with growth assumptions that were too high. A second €130bn rescue package was approved in February 2012.
The IMF's original Greek unemployment projection was 15%, whereas it is now running at 25%. By comparison, unemployment in Ireland, which was also bailed out in 2010 but has not had the structural problems of Greece, has remained stubbornly high, hovering at just under 15% – twice that of the UK – for the past three years.