Global Politics

Greek State Broadcaster ERT Goes Dark but Returns as Webcast

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REUTERS

An employee looks at people gathering outside the Greek state television headquarters in Athens June 11, 2013. Greece said it would shut down state broadcaster ERT on Tuesday and relaunch it as a leaner, cheaper organisation as part of budget cuts, drawing protests from workers, other media and junior partners in the ruling coalition. REUTERS/John Kolesidis (GREECE - Tags: BUSINESS EMPLOYMENT POLITICS MEDIA) - RTX10K67

"The eurozone crisis is over." French President Francois Hollande said as much a few days ago on a state visit to Japan.

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Apparently Greece didn't get the memo.

The Greek government has just made a surprise cost-cutting move, one designed to try to right the still-beleaguered economy. In the wee hours Wednesday morning, it pulled the plug on the Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation, or ERT.

But it didn't stay dark for long. A handful of press organizations are currently helping the state broadcaster go out, intermittently at least, as a webcast.

It all started late Tuesday night, when a Greek government spokesman – a man who had once worked at ERT, and who had recently said there were no plans to completely shutter it – called the state broadcaster "a waste" and "a scandal."

Simos Kedikoglou said it was time to shut ERT down.

That was made real when ERT went dark this morning, with its presenters in mid-sentence.

And just like that, journalist Katarina Ioannidou, along with more than 2,500 others at ERT, were out of work.

"We gave our lives, our souls for a proper news station," Ioannidou said in an interview. "We haven't been paid since last November, and now they're throwing us out just like that. It's a disgrace."

The outrage was also felt among many Greek viewers.

"It was a shock to see the black screen you know?" says Lamprini Thoma, who has worked as a journalist for nearly 30 years.

Like many Greek journalists, she cut her teeth at ERT.

And while she admits the state broadcaster has had its problems through the years, ERT remains hugely symbolic.

It began radio broadcasting in the late 1930s, and almost immediately became important part of Greek public life.

"There are moments that are written into our history," Thoma says. "Like the last message of the announcer who spoke to Greeks when the Germans took Athens in 1941. He said, 'This is no longer Greek radio. You are now going to listen to lies.'"

ERT television began broadcasting in the 1960s.

Thoma says her mother remembers how the station was taken over during the military junta in the 1970s. When ERT went dark Tuesday night, Thoma says her mom was taken back in time.

"My mom is now in her 70s, and she was crying yesterday. She's rather conservative, and she was saying, 'I was not expecting seeing this happening again in my country.'"

Until the early 1990s, ERT had no competition from the private sector. But now there are a number of private broadcasters.

Tastes, Thoma says, have changed. But ERT hasn't.

"It's kind of like the public radio and television in the United States. It produces the best possible programs, but there are not a lot of people who want to hear or see them."

But Tuesday night's cutting of ERT's signal does have many Greeks upset. And some are taking action.

Thoma works for The Press Project, an independent organization of Greek journalists. The Press Project heard that ERT journalists and technicians were still broadcasting, even though the signal had been cut. So, the project grabbed the ERT from the satellites and put it up on the web.

A few other press organizations are also helping ERT stay online right now.

Many journalists in Greece have gone on strike in solidarity with ERT, and angry protesters have gathered outside of the broadcaster's headquarters in Athens.

Anchor Emmanuela Argieiti says she isn't surprised.

"People trust the voice and the picture that's received through ERT," Argieiti told the BBC. "And I guess that explains why so many people, that crowd, have gathered in the courtyard of ERT, they trust us as a democratic institution."

Now, here's the odd thing.

Everyone in Greece understands that the budget needs cutting, and that those cuts can and should start with the bloated public sector.

But ERT ran a significant surplus last year. It's financed by a license fee paid by Greek citizens.

"Besides the whiff of totalitarianism that was evident when all of the sudden the plug was pulled, the economics makes absolutely no sense whatsoever," Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis told the BBC.

Instead of cutting an entire unit, he said, it would've been better to spread the cuts out more efficiently over the entire public sector.

ERT looks set to become a political chess piece in Greece in the days ahead.

Opposition parties are calling the ERT shutdown "a coup d'état," and even the three parties that make up the country's ruling coalition are divided over the move.

Lamprini Thoma doesn't think the current in-fighting over ERT will bring down the government. At least not yet.

"Governments are there to think. And ours…is not thinking," Thoma noted.

Wednesday Greece's prime minister, Antonis Samaras, said his government would create a new state broadcaster. One, he vowed, that would be transparent, and not waste public money.

In a speech to business leaders, Samaras said that "the sinful ERT is finished."

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