MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
The government of Greece has abruptly shut down the country's public broadcasting network and fired all of its staff. The prime minister wants to show the country's creditors that he's downsizing the public sector, which is often criticized as corrupt and bloated.
There are plans to eventually rehire a fraction of the workforce. Many Greeks see the rushed closure as a dictatorial move that will compromise the country's troubled media. Joanna Kakissis has the story from Athens.
JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Thousands gathered outside the leafy suburban headquarters of the Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation after the government shut it down. Some sang protest songs from the '60s, when Greece was run by military dictators. Nearby, the church of Aghia Paraskevi rang its bells in support of the network called ERT.
ERT opened in 1938 as a radio network and expanded to television in 1966. Yiannis Gemenoglou, a retired state employee, soon became a fan of the network's classical music and documentaries. Like other Greeks, he paid an annual licensing fee of 50 euros - that's about $66 - to keep ERT on the air. He doesn't buy the government's claims that firing ERT's 2,600 employees will change the Greek bureaucracy's culture of waste.
YIANNIS GEMENOGLOU: (Through interpreter) It's not the workers who caused the problems here. It's the leaders who run this place. They spent years stealing money and they're still doing it.
KAKISSIS: Gemenoglou is talking about the network's board of directors. For decades, they were appointed by political parties and those appointees often secured jobs for family or friends, says Ilias Mossialos, a former government minister who spoke by phone to the London School of Economics.
ILIAS MOSSIALOS: Since the organization is not independent, then party politics intervenes in hiring processes of personnel.
KAKISSIS: ERT soon had too many employees and no independence, he says. So two years ago, Mossialos introduced a plan to appoint an independent board and hire staff on merit. But the New Democracy party that's now the main partner in the coalition government, the party that just shut down the network, also shut down his proposal.
Mossialos says Greece is in desperate need of independent media. Most private stations and newspapers are owned by rich businessmen who strongly influence coverage. Some journalists even work for the same banks and ministries they cover. Dimitris Apokis, a foreign editor at ERT, says the public sector must be drastically restructured and modernized to cut out cronyism.
DIMITRIS APOKIS: I don't think that you will find a serious and thoughtful person in Greece who will say something different here. Definitely this is the main problem of my country.
KAKISSIS: But Apokis says closing ERT and reopening it with a tiny staff, as the government plans to do, is too harsh. The move will fire more than 2,000 employees. That's how many civil service jobs the country's creditors want cut by the end of the summer. The network's employees are the first civil servants to be fired in Greece in years. They face an unemployment rate of more than 27 percent, the highest rate in the eurozone.
That's why Despina Georgiou is camped out at the desk where she's answered phones for nearly 30 years.
DESPINA GEORGIOU: (Speaking foreign language)
KAKISSIS: I asked her if her husband still has a job. I don't have a husband, she says, I only had my job. I only had this salary. And now what? For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Athens.