OFF THE AIR: Protesters wave flags outside Greek state broadcaster ERT’s headquarters in Athens on Wednesday. Picture: REUTERS
OFF THE AIR: Protesters wave flags outside Greek state broadcaster ERT’s headquarters in Athens on Wednesday. Picture: REUTERS

ATHENS — Buses and subway trains stopped running in Athens on Thursday as Greek workers began to stage a nationwide strike 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 a "coup-like move ... to gag unbiased information".

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

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

Iron shutters blocked the entrance to the state-run Athens subway stations early on Thursday and city buses did not run.

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

But there was little sign of private businesses joining the strike. City streets were full with commuters and car traffic, supermarkets were open for business and cafes were serving customers as usual.

"The lowest ERT employee is making in a day what I’m making in a week, so why should I strike for them?" asked vegetable vendor Yannis Papailias as he sorted out his wares.

Waitress Maria Skylakou agreed, saying: "Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their jobs. Who protested for them?"

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 in 2012, when marches frequently turned violent.

The last nationwide strike was in February.

‘Catastrophic plans’

"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.

ERT has shed viewers with the rise of commercial television, and its three statewide channels had a combined audience share of only 13%. Many Greeks regard it as a wasteful source of patronage jobs for political parties but the abruptness of its closing — with newscasters cut off in mid-sentence — was a shock.

Mr 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.

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", he said.

The opposition’s rhetoric was no less heated. Left-wing leader Alexis Tsipras, addressing protesting ERT workers 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," Mr 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 public-sector activity is expected to come to a halt during Thursday’s strike, with train and bus employees and bankers among various groups joining the walkout.

Unemployment has climbed to almost 27% in Greece after more than 850,000 jobs, most in the private sector, were wiped out since the beginning of Greece’s six-year recession.

About 2,600 ERT employees are to lose their jobs. Some of them are to be rehired at the new broadcaster, which is expected to employee about 1,200 people.

Reuters