Employees had occupied premises of state broadcaster since it was shut down by government five months ago
Greek riot police have stormed the premises of the country's erstwhile state broadcaster, ERT, evicting former employees who had occupied the building since June in protest at the government's abrupt decision to close down the channel.
In a carefully calibrated pre-dawn raid on Thursday, 13 vans of riot police surrounded the complex in northern Athens before blocking its entrance and removing the workers. Scuffles broke out and teargas was fired as the police moved in.
"The building has been liberated," the government spokesman Simos Kedigoglou told Mega TV. "There were several reasons why normality had to be imposed," he said, adding that Greece's assumption of the rotating EU presidency in January was among them.
The raid, described as an invasion by the political opposition, sparked shock and anger with hundreds of supporters gathering outside the complex in a show of solidarity.
The protesters were among 2,700 employees cut off from the public payroll when, in a surprise move, the prime minister, Antonis Samaras, ordered the station to be shut down overnight, blaming the debt-stricken country's economic crisis.
Greece, which has been kept afloat with rescue funds from the EU, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund since May 2010, is under immense pressure to slash its bloated public sector. The former broadcaster, a breeding ground for party political patronage, was among the state's most profligate bodies with successive governments adding to its ever-expanding payroll by placing personnel in senior positions.
But the abrupt move, in a nation already labouring under record levels of unemployment, triggered widespread opposition and spawned a political crisis that ultimately led to the small leftwing Dimar party defecting from the government in disgust. Samaras's unilateral decision to pull the plug on the broadcaster, mid-air, was seen as arrogant and high-handed.
It was in this climate that hundreds of fired employees, defying management orders, held out, occupying the premises with the support of opposition parties and broadcasting a bootleg news channel over the internet. "We call on all citizens to come to the TV complex … We call on all to defend the voice of democracy!" they said in a message relayed in a blog. "A short while ago a strong turnout of police forces raided the building."
The radical left main opposition Syriza party denounced the raid as a "coup d'etat against information and democracy". "Once again, the dilemma of democracy or [imposing] the memorandum has made its mark," it said, referring to the onerous loan agreement Athens has signed with foreign lenders. "A black page in the history of public television and democracy has been written in our country."
Greece is the only EU country to have ever closed its own broadcaster. A streamlined version, called Public Television, or DT, with less than half the staff, has since taken its place.
The timing of the operation was not lost on Greeks. Inspectors representing the country's "troika" of creditors returned to Athens to resume negotiations this week amid criticism that the government has not done enough implementing reforms in return for rescue funds.
Relations between Greece and its lenders have been badly strained by differences over how to fill a looming budget black hole that, once again, threatens to throw the nation's economic recovery off-track. The troika says the gap can only be resolved if fresh austerity measures are applied – a prospect fiercely resisted by the ruling alliance.
Analysts said Thursday's raid was aimed clearly at sending a message that the government was determined to put the public sector in order