June 11, 2015 / 8:27 AM / in 2 years

Tears as Greek state TV returns to air after austerity shutdown

An employee of Greek state broadcaster ERT looks at monitor screens at the control room during the first broadcast of the station after its reopening in Athens June 11, 2015.Alkis Konstantinidis

ATHENS (Reuters) - Employees at Greece's state television ERT hugged each other and cried on Thursday as the channel aired its first broadcast in two years, after it was shut down under one of the previous government's most drastic austerity measures.

Leftist Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who is racing to reach a cash-for-reforms deal with the European Union and IMF, had called ERT's closure "a great wound" of his country's bailout. He made its reopening one of his priorities as part of efforts to roll back cuts demanded by the lenders.

Employees gathered on set in tears as anchors prepared to present the first early-morning talk show. Before the programme, the channel played out footage of some of Greece's most famous landmarks and scenery, as the national anthem blared out.

"It's a special day for all Greeks, for philhellenes, for those who love Greece and for those who love freedom of information," anchor Nikos Aggelidis said at the start of the show. "We're nervous. We're very touched."

His co-presenter Vasiliki Haina added in a shaky voice: "It's a special day for us, a difficult day." The news ticker on the screen read: "The return of ERT two years since the black."

ERT, which cost 300 million euros a year to run, was replaced with a slimmed-downed broadcaster called NERIT, which is expected to be merged or absorbed by ERT. Workers climbed to the top of the broadcaster's headquarters earlier this week to remove the letters "N" and "I" from its logo.

Tsipras's Syriza party called its reopening "a great victory for democracy". A concert to celebrate its relaunch was held in the evening.

Tsipras, and government ministers, visited the headquarters on Thursday on his return from Brussels where he held difficult talks with the country's European creditors.

"This is a historic day after two years of struggle," Tsipras told reporters. He said he was there to participate in a celebration of democracy.

"For as long as the people support our efforts, we will pursue our fair demands," he said.

The closure of ERT on June 11, 2013, with newscasters cut-off mid-sentence, set off a firestorm of protests, brought thousands to the streets and led to the withdrawal of a partner from the coalition government at the time.

The move divided Greeks, many of whom regarded it as a wasteful source of patronage jobs for political parties but were shocked by the abruptness with which the government pulled the plug.

Hundreds rallied outside the building in daily protests, as teary-eyed musicians from ERT's national symphony orchestra performed songs. Laid-off journalists had defied management orders to leave the headquarters and for weeks broadcast a bootleg news channel over the Internet.

The government has said all of the roughly 2,500 staff who were made redundant, including 600 journalists, would be rehired at a cost of about 30 million euros a year, covered through an existing monthly charge on electricity bills.

Additional reporting by Alkis Konstantinidis and George Georgiopoulos; Editing by Anna Willard and Janet Lawrence

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