ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Journalists from axed Greek state broadcaster ERT returned to the airwaves Thursday amid an escalating crisis that saw the country rocked by a general strike, a sharp rebuke from Europe's top human rights official and widening divisions in the fragile coalition government.
Officials at the Geneva-based European Broadcasting Union on Thursday said they had successfully relayed a live pirate broadcast from the sacked journalists to Greece, Europe, Asia and Oceania. The move is in defiance of the country's conservative-led government, which shut down state TV and radio Tuesday as part of the its austerity measures.
"We have just had our signal broadcast on satellite. We thank everyone who helped us," ERT newsreader and union representative Chrysa Roumlelioti said on the broadcast.
More than 10,000 people staged a peaceful demonstration outside Greece's public broadcasting headquarters Hellenic Broadcasting Corp., or ERT, in support of fired staff who for a third day occupied the building.
The government pulled ERT off the air late Tuesday, axing all 2,656 jobs, and threatening to sue anyone who retransmitted broadcasts by the laid-off journalists.
The decision to shutter the broadcaster has drawn harsh criticism from the Europe's top official responsible for human rights.
In a written statement to the AP, Nils Muiznieks, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, called the move an "ill-advised step" that had sent "a chilling signal to the media and stirs tensions in a country already suffering from a serious financial and social crisis."
"I urge the government to repeal it and refrain from acting in a way which unduly restrains the freedom of public service media," Muiznieks added.
The EBU has written in protest to European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras. The union's president, Jean-Claude Philippot, is flying to Athens and will seek a meeting with Samaras on Friday.
Samaras' conservative party, which holds most government posts, has defended the ERT closure, insisting a new, more efficient, state broadcaster will be operational by the end of the summer.
"There have been more strikes at ERT in recent months that anywhere else ... They are acting in a socially irresponsible way," conservative lawmaker Adonis Georgiadis said. "We are not ending public television. We are making it better."
Samaras has called a meeting Monday with center-left coalition partners who are demanding that ERT be reopened.
"We are totally against seeing television screens going dark and we side with the overwhelming majority of the Greek people," Evangelos Venizelos, leader of the Socialist Pasok party and coalition partner, told parliament.
The crisis has rapidly become the worst in Samaras' year-old government, which is credited with rescuing Greece's euro membership by imposing harsh austerity and reform measures demanded by the country's international creditors.
But now the coalition's center-left partners are threatening to block the ERT closure, the government faces the risk of breaking up and calling an early general election — a process that could disrupt the austerity process and threaten future bailout payments.
"The country does not need an election," said Venizelos. "But Pasok does not fear elections ... To think it does would be a major mistake."
Analysts argued the government was not doomed, but weakened further.
"I think this crisis will come to a head in three to six months, because effectively the government has lost control of the state finances ... and this will become evident in coming months," conservative commentator George Kyrtsos told the AP.
In London, Martin Koehring, an analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, said political instability could endanger Greece's chances of winning debt relief from bailout lenders in the eurozone.
"I don't think Germany, in particular, will go ahead with any kind of debt relief if there is no stable government in Greece," Koehring said, speaking by telephone
Cooperation between Samaras' conservatives and his partners has come under increased strain this year as unemployment continues to worsen and after the government used emergency powers to end several strikes.
Greece is under pressure to fire civil servants as part of its commitments to bailout lenders — the International Monetary Fund and other euro countries — who have provided some 200 billion euros ($265.5 billion) in emergency funding since 2010.
Greek unemployment swelled to 27.4 percent in the first quarter of the year, the state statistics agency reported Thursday.
For Kiriaki Trochani, a laid-off member of ERT's choir, there seems little prospect of re-employment.
"Musical ensembles are being shut one after the other," she said. "For me, I think it is impossible to find a job as a singer somewhere else."
The general strike Thursday was called by Greece's two largest unions and disrupted public transport, left state hospitals running on skeleton staff, and grounded flights for two hours.
Protests were held around Greece, including Thessaloniki, the country's second largest city, where 7,500 gathered, according to police estimates.
AP writers Raphael Kominis in Athens and Costas Kantouris in Thessaloniki contributed.