ATHENS, Greece — Greece's fragile governing coalition failed to reach a compromise Wednesday about the closure of the state-run ERT broadcaster. That left the government in a crisis that could lead to early elections, just a year after it was formed to save the country from bankruptcy.
Prime Minister Antonis Samaras derided ERT TV and radio as "a true symbol of privilege and lack of transparency." In a speech to business leaders, Samaras said that "the sinful ERT is finished."
The three-party government yanked ERT off the air late Tuesday, axing all 2,656 jobs as part of its cost-cutting drive demanded by international creditors. The move sparked intense protests from both Samaras' coalition partners and Greek unions, which slammed it as a blow to media freedoms and called a general strike for Thursday.
Several thousand protesters gathered peacefully for a second night Wednesday outside ERT's Athens headquarters, which was festooned with banners calling for the company to be saved.
The government plan is for a leaner, cheaper version of ERT to open before the end of the summer.
"Greece had become a true Jurassic Park, a unique country in the world that saw the survival of dinosaurs with antiquated ideological obsessions that have become extinct everywhere else," Samaras said.
His wording left little leeway for an agreement with his center-left allies, PASOK and the Democratic Left – without whom his conservative party has no parliamentary majority with which to pass key reforms demanded by Greece's international bailout creditors.
"If the country is led to elections, Mr. Samaras will be responsible," Democratic Left spokesman Andreas Papadopoulos told The Associated Press, commenting on the prime minister's speech.
Following an emergency meeting, PASOK leader Evangelos Venizelos and Democratic Left chief Fotis Kouvelis offered Samaras an olive branch, saying they were committed to keeping the coalition alive. But they insisted on top-level talks with Samaras aimed at keeping ERT going.
"Mr. Kouvelis and Mr. Venizelos offered a way out – but Mr. Samaras, in effect, did not respond," Papadopoulos said. The Democratic Left has already submitted legislation in parliament to cancel the corporation's demise.
An official close to Samaras said the prime minister would phone Venizelos and Kouvelis Thursday to schedule a meeting "in the next few days." But the conservatives implied that little was to be expected from such talks.
"What else do they have to discuss?" a second party official said. "The two minority partners are asking that ERT should remain open, and the prime minister just addressed that in his speech."
Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter on the record.
Debt-crippled Greece has been kept afloat for the past three years by rescue loans from its European partners and the International Monetary Fund. To qualify for the cash lifeline, it has imposed repeated, deeply-resented income cuts and tax hikes, and promised to sack 15,000 civil servants by 2015.
The ERT layoffs would contribute significantly to meeting that target, which has been delayed for years.
The crisis has deepened a punishing recession now in its sixth year, and driven unemployment to a record 27 percent – all in the private sector since civil servants had been virtually guaranteed life-time jobs.
The European Commission said it had not sought the closure of ERT and "nor does the commission question the Greek government's mandate to manage the public sector."
Journalist unions have launched rolling 24-hour strikes, imposing a news blackout on Greece's privately owned broadcasters, while ERT's journalists defied the government and continued a live Internet broadcast.
"We've managed to keep the broadcast going through the analogue signal and web links," said Panagiotis Kalfagianis, leader of Greek federation of broadcast employees. "The government has tried, using the riot police and technical means, to cut off ERT's signal. In some cases they succeeded, and in some they have not."
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 soccer World Cup and the Olympics.
It is largely state-funded, with Greek households paying a fee through its electricity bills – whether they have a TV set or not. There are also several private broadcasters in Greece, including Mega, Antenna and Skai.
Athens journalists' union president Dimitris Trimis said ERT's closure would lower the quality of news coverage.
"Who will be left to speak the truth when the state broadcasters are gone?" he said. "Private broadcasters are bankrupt and have slashed their workforces, and in order to survive they are clinging ever closer to business and political interests."
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 ERT in return 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."
Employees were particularly riled by the fact that the closure was announced by government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou, a former ERT journalist, who as the government's most senior media official has been responsible for ERT for the past year.
"He took the decisions, how can he tell us he wasn't aware of what was going on?" Potha said.
The executive order to close ERT must be ratified by parliament within three months but the order faces failure if, as expected, it is rejected by PASOK and the Democratic Left.
Despite tensions over a number of austerity measures, the coalition government has surprised many people by surviving its first year in power. It has also been credited with stabilizing the bailed-out Greek economy and easing the threat of an exit from the euro, which was very real amid the political instability that preceded its formation following two national elections.
Left-wing opposition leader Alexis Tsipras slammed the closure as "illegal" during an interview on ERT's online broadcast.
"This is an action that challenges our democracy. It's a coup. It lacks the backing of a parliamentary majority because the two (minority coalition) parties have expressed their opposition," Tsipras said after a meeting with the country's president.
The European Broadcasting Union, based in Geneva, Switzerland, expressed its "profound dismay" at the closure in a letter to Samaras, urging him to reverse course.
An EBU statement said state channels had a combined market share of 14.9 per cent in 2012, running on licensing fee that was among the lowest in Europe.