ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greek state TV and radio were gradually pulled off the air late Tuesday, hours after the government said it would temporarily close all state-run broadcasts and lay off about 2,500 workers as part of a cost-cutting drive demanded by the bailed-out country's international creditors.
The conservative-led government said the Hellenic Broadcasting Corp., or ERT, will reopen "as soon as possible" with a new, smaller workforce. It wasn't immediately clear how long that would take, and whether all stations would reopen.
"Congratulations to the Greek government," newscaster Antonis Alafogiorgos said toward the end of ERT's main TV live broadcast. "This is a blow to democracy," he added, as thousands of media workers and supporters protested the closure outside the company's headquarters in the Athens suburb of Aghia Paraskevi.
The surprise move heralds the first direct public sector layoffs in more than three years of painful austerity, which have already cost nearly 1 million private sector jobs. The announcement widened cracks in the year-old governing coalition, with both minority partners condemning the corporation's suspension, while international journalists' associations expressed dismay.
ERT TV and radio started to be yanked off the air in several parts of the country around 11 p.m. (2000 GMT) Tuesday, about an hour before the government said all signals would go dead, although satellite broadcasts continued.
"I was hoping up until the last minute that the reports were not true. It's unbelievable," news reader Stavroula Christofilea said moments after the move was announced.
A Finance Ministry statement said ERT has been formally disbanded, and authorities would "secure" the corporation's facilities. Riot police deployed outside ERT buildings in several parts of Greece, but no clashes were reported.
Government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou — a former state TV journalist — described ERT as a "haven of waste" and said its 2,500 employees will be compensated.
"ERT is a typical example of a unique lack of transparency and incredible waste. And that ends today," Kedikoglou said. "It costs three to seven times as much as other TV stations and four to six times the personnel — for a very small viewership, about half that of an average private station."
Debt-stifled Greece has depended on rescue loans from its European partners and the International Monetary Fund since May 2010. In exchange, it imposed deeply resented income cuts and tax hikes, which exacerbated a crippling recession and forced tens of thousands of businesses to close, sending unemployment to a record of 27 percent. As part of the bailout agreement, Greece's government pledged to cut 15,000 state jobs by 2015, out of a total of about 600,000.
While lacking the prestige and popularity of other state broadcasters — such as Britain's BBC — ERT was long seen as a bastion of quality programming in a media landscape dominated by commercial stations. But it was also used by successive governments to provide safe jobs for political favorites, and, while nominally independent, devoted considerable time and effort to showcasing administration policies.
The broadcaster is largely state-funded, with every Greek household paying a fee through its electricity bills — whether they have a TV set or not.
Both minority partners in the fragile governing coalition said they opposed ERT's closure through a ministerial decree that takes immediate effect. The measure still requires eventual parliamentary approval, which both Socialist PASOK and the Democratic Left say they will withhold.
PASOK accused Prime Minister Antonis Samaras' majority conservatives of ignoring its smaller partners in the coalition formed last summer to end a political crisis that threatened to push Greece out of the 17-member euro currency union. The three parties were already squabbling over non-austerity-related legislation, but it is unclear how severe the new rift is.
"The decree will be retroactively invalidated, as we are not going to vote for it ... but we want it to be immediately withdrawn," party lawmaker Fofi Gennimata said.
A PASOK statement said the conservatives presented ERT's demise as a necessary move to secure the release of Greece's next vital rescue loan payment. The country has so far received about 200 of the total 240 billion euro ($320 billion) package, and a team of austerity inspectors arrived in Athens this week for a new review of demanded spending cuts and reforms.
Private TV stations halted news broadcasts on Tuesday evening after the country's POESY media union called a lightning six-hour strike, accusing the government of sacrificing the broadcaster to appease its creditors.
"Bailout creditors are demanding civil service layoffs and the government, in order to meet its obligations toward foreign monitors, is prepared to sacrifice the public broadcasting corporation," a union statement said.
Unions representing ERT workers at three terrestrial TV stations, one satellite station and its national and regional radio network said they would fight to keep the stations on the air.
"They are trying to scare us," said Vayia Valavaki, secretary of the ERT union. "Unfortunately, our only weapons are our bodies."
"I am now a laid-off single mother with a young child," she said. "Where exactly is the state for me? How exactly is this country protecting me? Why are they leaving me without work?"
Protesters at the corporation's Athens headquarters included main opposition Radical Left Coalition leader Alexis Tsipras, who described the move as a blow against democracy.
"This is a coup targeting ERT employees but also the Greek people who pay for public broadcasting and have the right to objective information," Tsipras said. "We warn the government not to illegally shut down the broadcast signal, and we are prepared to coordinate the struggle of employees and the Greek people for democracy."
The European Broadcasting Union, an alliance of public service media organizations, expressed "profound dismay."
"While we recognize the need to make budgetary savings, national broadcasters are more important than ever at times of national difficulty," the EBU said in a letter to Samaras Tuesday.
Marc Gruber, director of the International Federation of Journalists in Europe, also strongly condemned the move.
"We consider this a blow to democracy," he said, speaking from Brussels. "We intend to put pressure on the (Greek) government and the European Union. This is not just an issue of democracy. It is also an issue of people losing their jobs from one day to another."
ERT is the first state broadcasting casualty among Europe's bailed out countries. Portugal's state broadcaster has had its staff and budgets cut, while Ireland's RTE has cut the salaries of its highest paid stars following license-payers protests.
AP writers Derek Gatopoulos in Athens, Barry Hatton in Lisbon and Shawn Pogatchnik in Dublin contributed to this article.