The decision by the Greek government to pull the plug on its national public broadcaster, the ERT, has sparked online outrage, inside the country and beyond and led to calls for protests in London and Paris.
Supporters of ERT and free speech proponents took to twitter early Wednesday to begin organizing demonstrations this afternoon in front of the Greek embassies in the U.K. and France. In a sign that the protests have spread beyond Europe, an online petition to "stop the shutdown of public television in Greece!" started by a Canadian user called Sophia Kapellas on social activist site avaaz.org quickly surpassed its goal of 7,500 signatures.
Within the country, protests appear to be escalating. In addition to the crowds gathered around ERT headquarters in Athens, EnetEnglish.gr, an English-language Greek news site which is live blogging about the ERT closure, reported that the country's main public and private sector trade unions have called for a 24-hour general strike on Thursday in a show of solidarity with ERT workers.
The conservative Greek government announced the shock decision to shut down the ERT on Tuesday, cutting over-the-air transmissions of its national TV and radio services at midnight local time.
Government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou, who announced the decision, said the move was a cost-cutting measure, part of Greece's wide-ranging austerity program to slash its massive public debt in order to secure bail-out funds from the so-called "troika": the European Union, International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank. Under the conditions of the bailout, Greece has to cut some 15,000 employees from the state payroll by the end of 2014. Around 2,600 people work for ERT.
Inspectors from all three organizations met with Greek finance minister Yannis Stournaras earlier this week to talk about further austerity measures, including the firing of thousands of public service workers and further privatization of state-owned enterprises. Plans to sell off the country's national gas company have stalled after Russia's Gazprom pulled out of takeover talks. While Athens has trimmed its budget deficit -- it was just over $5 billion (€3.9 billion) in the first five months of this year, compared to €10.9 billion over the same period in 2012, tax revenue is well below forecasts, making it harder to hit the troika's targets.
But in a bill the government published online Wednesday, there are no plans to privatize ERT. The bill, published on an official government website, would have the current broadcaster replaced by a new entity, Nerit or New Hellenic Radio Internet and Television. A Google translation of the document suggest the new broadcaster will continue to be a public entity "owned by the public sector and regulated by the state" and will be financed, as ERT is currently, through tax levies as well as "advertising revenue" and "income from other sources." What the exact tax fee will be and thus Nerit's overall budget, does not appear to be specified.
The bill states that the new broadcaster will remain "independent of the state, and other bodies of public authority, entities controlled by them and political parties" and have full "programmatic and editorial independence."
In a briefing with international journalists in Athens on Wednesday, government spokesman Kedikoglou reportedly likened the broadcaster's relaunch to rebuilding a car with a new engine and promised a slimmed-down version of ERT would be on air in a matter of weeks. Speaking to Reuters, Kedikoglou said the shutdown was decided six weeks ago and was unrelated to the recent failure to sell Greece's state gas firm or to this week's inspection visit by the troika.