By DEREK GATOPOULOSAssociated Press
ATHENS, Greece (AP) - Greece's two largest labor unions have called a 24-hour general strike for Thursday to protest the government's move to close state-run TV and radio as part of public spending cuts, a decision that has shocked the public and triggered a political crisis.
TV and radio signals from the Hellenic Broadcasting Corp., or ERT, went dead early Wednesday, hours after the government closed the broadcaster down and fired its 2,500 workers, citing the need to cut "incredible waste."
But thousands of protesters remained outside the company's headquarters north of Athens as ERT's journalists defied the order and continued a live Internet broadcast.
The civil servants' union ADEDY told the Associated Press it had called a strike and a series of protests to be held outside the ERT headquarters. The larger GSEE union was also meeting to ratify the decision and join the nationwide strike, officials from that union said.
Journalist unions also launched rolling 24-hour strikes, halting news programs on Greece's privately owned broadcasters, while the government's center-left coalition partners demanded that ERT's closure be reversed.
Government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou said a new more efficient and less costly public broadcaster would be launched before the end of the summer.
"When you restructure something from the foundations, you have to close it, temporarily," he said Wednesday.
Greeks watched ERT's online pirate broadcasts on laptops in corner shops and homes, many expressing disbelief at the decision to close it.
"I feel very bad. I'm very upset... This is a big loss for TV," Athens resident Eytixia Kaziani said.
ERT started radio programming in the 1930s and television in the mid-1960s. Though it was widely regarded as reflecting government positions - 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 football World Cup and the Olympics.
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. There are also several private broadcasters in Greece, including Mega and Sky.
The decision to close ERT was announced during an inspection in Athens by officials from Greece's bailout creditors. Debt-stifled Greece has depended on rescue loans since May 2010. In exchange, it has 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.
The "troika" of bailout inspectors - the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund - has been pressing Athens to start a long-delayed program to cut 15,000 state jobs by 2015. The shuttering of the state broadcaster s the first time in the three-year bailout program that any state employee has lost their job.
The surprise closure of ERT is one of the biggest crises to hit the three-party coalition government since it was formed nearly a year ago.
Conservative Prime Minister Antonis Samaras faces fierce opposition from his own coalition partners - the Socialist Pasok and Democratic Left party - for the decision. The executive order to close ERT must be ratified by parliament within three months but cannot be approved without backing from the minority coalition lawmakers.
Despite tensions over a number of issues, notably related to the austerity measures demanded by Greece's international creditors, the coalition government has surprised many by surviving. It has also been credited with stabilizing the bailed out Greek economy and easing the threat of an exit from the euro.
Left-wing opposition leader Alexis Tsipras slammed the closure as "illegal" during an interview on ERT's online broadcast.
"Many times the word 'coup' is used as an exaggeration," he said. "In this case, it is not an exaggeration."
Tsipras said he would meet the country's president later Wednesday and ask him to cancel an executive order he signed allowing the government to close ERT.
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."
The European Broadcasting Union, based in Geneva, Switzerland, expressed its "profound dismay" in a letter to Samaras, urging him to reverse course.
AP Television's Eftehia Katsareas, Rafael Kominis and Srdjan Nedeljkovic contributed.
Hellenic Broadcasting Corp. http://www.ert.gr/
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