Greeks strike over state TV closure as backlash grows

ATHENS,  (Reuters) – Greek workers staged a nationwide strike yesterday, forcing hospitals to work on emergency staff and disrupting transport, in protest against the “sudden death” of state broadcaster ERT, switched off in the middle of the night by the government.

Greece’s two biggest labour unions plan to bring much of the near-bankrupt country to a standstill during the 24-hour strike against Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’s decision to close down ERT, which they describe as “coup-like move… to gag unbiased information.”

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

But the move infuriated the coalition partners keeping Prime Minister Antonis Samaras in power, restoring an atmosphere of crisis in a country that had seemed to be emerging from the relentless political drama accompanying one of the worst peacetime economic collapses in history.

Representing about 2.5 million workers, the unions have gone on strike repeatedly since Europe’s debt crisis erupted 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.

“In a systematic and autocratic way, the government has abolished the rights of workers and citizens one by one,” said the public sector union ADEDY, which is organising the walkout with its private sector sister union GSEE.

“We call on every worker and every citizen to fight to overthrow the government’s catastrophic plans,” ADEDY said.

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.

The Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation 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 it 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.

Samaras said he would press ahead with plans to reform ERT and relaunch it as a leaner and more efficient organisation, dismissing the broadcaster’s defenders as hypocrites who would block needed reforms.

He boasted that shutting the broadcaster was proof of the political will needed to transform Greece from “a real Jurassic Park, the only place on earth where dinosaurs survived”.
The opposition’s rhetoric was no less heated. Left wing leader Alexis Tsipras, addressing protesting ERT workers at a studio in Greece’s second biggest city Thessaloniki, 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.”

Most business and public sector activity is expected to come to a halt during yesterday’s strike, with train and bus employees and bankers among various groups joining the walkout.

Several marches are expected to culminate in demonstrations outside ERT’s headquarters, where workers have gathered since the closure was announced.

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