Under pressure from its international creditors to cut public spending, the Greek government on Tuesday announced the shutdown of state-run television and radio broadcaster ERT, which it called a “haven of waste”, idling some 2,900 employees that make up less than 1 percent of the public workforce.
At midnight, all three channels produced by Greek Radio and Television, known as ERT, went off the air and will remain dark pending an overhaul that is expected to last several months and trim about 100 million euros from the annual state budget.
Meanwhile, Greek households will get a break on the annual fees that generate some 300 million euros annually for ERT, providing its main source of funding. Those fees, which amount to about 50 euros a year, are collected through household electricity bills, but will be suspended while the broadcaster is off air.
"At a time when the Greek people are enduring sacrifices, there is no room for delay, hesitation or tolerance for sacred cows," said government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou.
According to government officials, operating costs at ERT are three to seven times higher than at other Greek television stations and it has three to six times more employees. At the same time, its three channels combined have about half the viewers of an average private station.
"ERT is a typical example of a unique lack of transparency and incredible extravagance. And that ends today," he said.
While all 2,900 employees would be sacked, Kedikoglou, a former state TV journalist, said they will be compensated and will be allowed to reapply for a job at a revamped organisation.
Under the terms of its 2010 bailout, Greece must dismiss 4,000 civil servants by the end of 2013 and 15,000 by the end of 2014 as steps toward reducing its bloated public sector.
Greece has already shed 128,000 of the 150,000 civil service positions that the so-called troika of lenders — the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and the European Central Bank — demanded to be cut, mainly through retirements and reduced hiring. Ranks have been thinned to around 650,000 people today from 970,000 in 2009, when the civil service constituted nearly a third of Greece’s work force.
The European Broadcasting Union (EBU) urged the cash-strapped country to backtrack on the closure, saying it was a major blow to media independence.
Ina statement, EBU president Jean Paul Philippot and director general Ingrid Deltenre urged Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras to "use all his powers to immediately reverse this decision".
"While we recognise the need to make budgetary savings, national broadcasters are more important than ever at times of national difficulty. This is not to say that ERT need be managed less efficiently than a private company. Naturally, all public funds must be spent with the greatest of care," they said in their letter to Samaras.