ATHENS -- Angry lawmakers and powerful unions in Greece scrambled Wednesday to reverse a sudden government decree shutting down the country’s public broadcaster to save money, even as the network's employees defied the order and continued to broadcast through the Internet.
More than 2,600 journalists and staff members at ERT, the Hellenic Broadcasting Corp., refused to leave their jobs and instead covered the controversy surrounding their operations by broadcasting online.
The workers were fired and state TV channels went black late Tuesday after the conservative-led government announced plans to pull the plug on ERT, calling it a "scandalous operation" and a "haven of waste and corruption."
By early Wednesday, state radio signals had also gone dead as technicians, escorted by riot police, shut down transmitters near the network's headquarters in Agia Paraskevi, northeast of Athens.
The sudden closure came as international debt inspectors arrived in Athens for a fresh audit of Greece's fiscal reforms to determine whether the country should continue to have access to the bailout loans that have kept it afloat.
The shutdown of ERT marked the first mass layoff of state employees since Greek lawmakers passed urgent legislation in April authorizing the elimination of 15,000 public-sector jobs by the end of 2014.
Despite the agreement to cut jobs, Tuesday’s surprise announcement widened cracks in the government. The ruling coalition's junior partners, the socialist PASOK party and the Democratic Left, broke ranks with conservative Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and said they would refuse to ratify the decision to shut down the public broadcaster when the decision gets an official parliamentary vote in September.
Opposition parties also lashed out, urging the government to repeal the shutdown order, saying the decision was unconstitutional and the style of its enforcement reminiscent of totalitarian regimes.
But Simos Kedikoglou, the government spokesman and a former ERT anchor, defended the decision. "At a time when the Greek people are enduring sacrifices, there is no room for delay, hesitation or tolerance of sacred cows," he said.
Under a restructuring plan unveiled Wednesday, sacked employees of ERT will be compensated and a new public broadcaster named New Hellenic Radio, Internet and Television, or NERIT, is to be formed with a leaner workforce.
Protest rallies were called for Thursday as journalists unions kicked off a 24-hour strike in solidarity, creating a nationwide news blackout that left private television and radio networks airing documentaries or soap opera reruns.
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