State broadcaster's end a blow to Greek identity

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By DEREK GATOPOULOS and MENELAOS HADJICOSTIS, Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — When Nazi troops marched into Greece's nearly deserted capital on April 27, 1941, radio announcer Costas Stavropoulos of the Hellenic Broadcasting Corp. announced the grim news. He urged his countrymen and women not to listen to future Nazi radio transmissions and signed off with the Greek national anthem.

That moment in Greek broadcasting history is indelibly etched into the country's collective memory.

It was the only time the state broadcaster — also known as ERT — had ceased to operate from its birth three years earlier. That is, until Tuesday, when Prime Minister Antonis Samaras' government shut ERT down and fired its 2,500 employees to prove to Greece's international lenders that he was serious about cutting the country's bloated public sector. Its TV and radio signals went dead early Wednesday.

That decision might just bring down Samaras' conservative-led coalition government, which lambasted the broadcaster for its "incredible waste."

The country's two largest labor unions called a 24-hour general strike for Thursday to protest the move, and flights from Greece's airports were set to halt for two hours that day. Protesters gathered Wednesday outside the company's headquarters north of Athens for a second day as ERT's journalists defied the closure order and continued a live Internet broadcast.

Journalist unions also launched rolling 24-hour strikes, halting news programs on Greece's privately owned broadcasters, while the government's center-left coalition partners demanded that ERT's closure be reversed.

Like other state-run companies in debt-drowned Greece, ERT over its 75 years was exposed to the kind of notorious political patronage that the country is famous for. As successive governments meted out jobs in exchange for votes, Greece's swelling ranks of public employees helped push it to near-financial ruin and in need of tens of billions in aid starting in 2010 from its 16 eurozone partners.

Despite that, ERT has forged a deep connection with ordinary Greeks, becoming the country's voice at home and to the world, especially in the absence of private broadcasting, which only came about in 1989.

ERT started radio programming in the 1930s and television in the mid-1960s. Though it was widely regarded as reflecting government policy — it had a channel run by the military during the 1967-74 dictatorship — the broadcaster was also valued for showcasing regional and cultural content and for covering major sporting events such as the World Cup and the Olympics.

Over the years, ERT became a mainstay of Greek life. At times, it provided the only outlet for entertainment and information to an impoverished nation slowly emerging from a bloody civil war in the late 1940s. It was also the sole link to the homeland for millions of diaspora Greeks around the globe.

ERT's old news jingle — the introduction to the traditional Greek song "O Tsopanakos" — still remains instantly recognizable to millions.

"ERT has been woven into Greeks' own identity," says Christodoulos Yiallourides, a professor of social and political science at Athens' Panteion University. "What's happening is a mistake. Certainly you need to make reforms and changes, but not like this. You don't shut down ERT, you try and fix it."

ERT is largely state-funded, with every Greek household paying a fee through its electricity bills — whether they have a TV set or not. There are also several private broadcasters now in Greece, including Mega, Antenna and Skai.

Even in Greek-speaking Cyprus, where ERT programming is transmitted as part of a bilateral agreement, people condemned the Greek government's decision. An official from the Cypriot state broadcaster CyBC railed against ERT's closure, recalling how a young diaspora Greek girl tearfully remembered her father asking the family for silence so he could listen to the news from ERT.

Yiallourides, who once worked as a political talk show producer on ERT radio, says the strong reaction to the broadcaster's closure may be coming from a sense that Greeks' own cultural identity is being assailed.

ERT consistently produced programming that promoted Greek history and culture, even as it drew plummeting ratings once private radio and television began operations. Yiallourides noted one successful music show on ERT radio was overseen by the late, venerated Greek composer Manos Hadjidakis, who won an Academy award for his song "Never on Sunday" from the self-titled film.

He said despite the broadcasters' foibles and cost, ERT produced high quality programming that stands in stark contrast to the foreign-produced soap operas inundating private TV channels in Greece today.

Moreover, Greeks trusted ERT to provide balanced, objective news reports because its journalists weren't under the kind of commercial advertising pressures faced by private news outlets.

"Who will be left to speak the truth when the state broadcasters are gone?" asked Dimitris Trimis, head of the Athens journalists' union. "Private broadcasters are bankrupt and have slashed their workforces, and in order to survive they are clinging ever closer to business and political interests."

Yiallourides, the professor, warned that the government's surprise decision could reignite social unrest.

The government has defended the move, insisting a new more efficient and less costly public broadcaster would be launched before the end of the summer. Still, it faces a political battle: the executive order to close ERT must be ratified by parliament within three months but faces failure if it is not backed by all the coalition's members.

ERT employee Kaity Potha, 55, said the government was blaming the broadcaster's staff for its own incompetence, which included giving high-paid jobs at the broadcaster for political patronage.

"Our salaries have been cut 45 percent in the past three years," she said. "Every clown who governed Greece in recent decades dumped us not only with their own governing board but also with 200-300 new staff — their salaries have not been cut."

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Hadjicostis reported from Nicosia, Cyprus. Nicholas Paphitis contributed from Athens.

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