* Smaller coalition partners meet over TV closure
* Greece first developed market to be downgraded to emerging
* Journalists strike, left protests at state broadcaster
* Setbacks follow failure of key gas privatisation
By Lefteris Papadimas and Renee Maltezou
ATHENS, June 12 Greek Prime Minister Antonis
Samaras faced down a political revolt on Wednesday from partners
in his ruling coalition after his government abruptly switched
the state broadcaster off the air in the middle of the night.
Screens went black on state broadcaster ERT, cutting
newscasters off mid-sentence only hours after the decision was
announced, in what the government said was a temporary measure
to staunch a waste of taxpayers' money.
Samaras boasted that shutting the broadcaster was proof of
the political will needed to transform Greece from "a real
Jurassic Park, the only place on earth where dinosaurs
But his two centre-left coalition partners were furious,
saying they had not been consulted and demanding the broadcaster
be switched back on, although their remarks fell short of
threats to walk out of the government.
The confrontation brought back a febrile atmosphere of
political drama in a country that had seemed to be emerging from
a pattern of relentless political crisis accompanying one of the
biggest peacetime economic collapses in history.
Unions called a 24-hour nationwide general strike in
protest, and journalists across all media called an indefinite
strike. Some newspapers were shut and private TV stations
broadcast reruns of soap operas and sitcoms instead of the news.
The leader of the Socialist party PASOK, Evangelos
Venizelos, called for an urgent meeting of coalition party
leaders. The other coalition partner, the small Democratic Left
party, said restructuring the broadcaster was necessary but
should take place without shutting it.
A government source said Samaras had agreed to meet
coalition partners in coming days. But the prime minister made
clear he had no intention of backing down, describing support
for the broadcaster as an "outbreak of the hypocrisy that has
brought Greece to this point".
"All these years, people wondered whether anybody had the
political will to change things," he said. "We have the
political will... There is no better proof than yesterday's
The return of political turmoil to Greece weighed on
European stock markets, which closed lower.
Also on Wednesday, the Athens bourse was cut to emerging
market status by index provider MSCI, making Greece the first
country ever to lose the status of a developed market. The
gesture was not only symbolically embarrassing but could also
force fund managers that track indexes to ditch investments.
That followed the derailing of Greece's privatisation
programme earlier this week with the announcement that a gas
firm could not be sold. The setbacks have reversed a rise in
investor confidence that had prompted Samaras to say the risk of
Greece being expelled from the euro zone was over and a
"Greekovery" was under way.
Centre-right leader Samaras has ruled in fragile coalition
with the two centre-left parties since winning power last year.
"ERT has become a catalyst on issues of democracy, a fair
state, cohesion of this government and stability regarding the
course of the country," PASOK chief Venizelos said. "We
shouldn't create crises without a reason out of nothing."
One official from Samaras's New Democracy Party said the
prime minister was considering calling a confidence vote,
although a senior government official denied plans to do so.
"It could be highly destabilising if it moves to a
confrontation in parliament where the two smaller political
parties have to humble themselves to avoid a next election or
stick to it and force a next election," said political analyst
"BIG FAT FEAST"
The government promised to relaunch ERT within weeks, saying
it was taken off air so suddenly only due to fears that workers
would damage state equipment.
The 75-year-old Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation ERT has
shed viewers since the rise of commercial television and radio,
and its three statewide stations had just a 13 percent combined
audience share when it was switched off.
Its 2,600-strong staff include 600 journalists. Many Greeks
cite the broadcaster as an example of inefficiency, overspending
and jobs given in return for political favours.
Nevertheless, in a country where nearly two thirds of young
people are now unemployed after years of relentless cuts and tax
hikes there is a visceral public belief that the government
should not slash jobs. Greeks were stunned by the fast shutdown.
"It had to happen. ERT was a big fat feast for the political
parties," said Maria Panagiotou, a 65-year-old retiree. "But the
way they did it is unacceptable. How can this happen in Europe?"
Athens journalists' union ESIEA said its strike would end
only "when the government takes back this coup d'etat which gags
Some ERT journalists occupied the broadcaster's building in
defiance of government orders and continued broadcasting over
the Internet, showing sombre newscasters deploring the shutdown
and replaying images of thousands gathered outside to protest.
ERT reporters from as far away as Australia appeared on air
to describe the outrage of local Greek communities.
A senior government official said Athens was under pressure
to show visiting EU and IMF inspectors that it had a plan to
fire 2,000 state workers as required under its bailout, and the
ERT shutdown was the only option available to meet the target.
The European Commission said it did not seek ERT's closure
under the bailout but did not question the decision. France's
Socialist government voiced outright condemnation, calling it
"very worrying and regrettable".
Opposition leader Alexis Tsipras called it "a coup, not only
against ERT workers but against the Greek people", and accused
Samaras of the "historic responsibility of gagging state TV".
The far-right Golden Dawn party was the only one that openly
welcomed the closure, with lawmaker Ilias Panagiotaros tweeting:
"ERT, that Socialist-Communist shack, is finally closing."
The ERT crisis overshadowed MSCI's reclassification of the
country as an emerging market. MSCI said the Athens bourse had
been too small for a developed market for two years. The stock
market traded at two-month lows after the announcement.
Although reclassification could mean some funds are required
to sell Greek shares, brokers said the move could also bring
inflows by allowing Greece to win a share of funds allocated for
"Emerging market funds could not enter since Greece was
classified as developed market. Now it will be on their radar,"
said Theodore Krintas, head of wealth management at Attica Bank.
Yields on Greece's 10-year benchmark bond crept back above
10 percent after Athens failed to sell state gas firm DEPA on
Monday, putting it at risk of missing bailout targets.