Greek investigative journalist acquitted of privacy breaches…

November 3, 2012 |

Yesterday PM reported on the acquittal of Costas Vaxevanis for breaches of Greek’s privacy laws.

The transcript of the report relevantly provides:

SHANE MCLEOD: A Greek investigative journalist accused of breaching privacy for publishing the names of more than 2,000 of his compatriots with Swiss bank accounts has been acquitted.

The case has highlighted the role of tax evasion as part of the nation’s debt crisis.

The journalist, Costas Vaxevanis, was facing a possible jail term if he’d been found guilty. However, many in Greece now say media freedom itself was on trial.

Europe correspondent Rachael Brown reports.

RACHAEL BROWN: The list in the magazine Hot Doc includes politicians, senior public servants and business leaders with HSBC bank accounts in Switzerland. Some are suspected of tax evasion.

COSTAS VAXEVANIS (translated): Because I’m a journalist and it’s our job to tell the truth to the people. The three last governments have lied and have made a mockery of the Greek people with this list.

RACHAEL BROWN: The former French finance minister Christine Lagarde gave the list to her Greek counterpart George Papaconstantinou in 2010 but nothing was done.

Mr Vaxevanis again:

COSTAS VAXEVANIS (translated): They were obliged to pass it to parliament or to the justice system. They didn’t do it and they should be in prison for it. But instead, they think I should be the one in prison.

I didn’t expect that the government would react so fast and in such a vengeful way by sending 20 special forces to arrest one journalist to send him to prison.

RACHAEL BROWN: Mr Papaconstantinou says he did pass the list on to relevant authorities, and it’s not parliament’s fault it wasn’t followed up.

GEORGE PAPACONSTANTINOU: I think it’s a combination of the lack of ability to follow up on this kind of fairly complex situations where you have money abroad, and perhaps a reluctance – quote unquote – of touching something which could have been politically difficult or damaging and could involve powerful people.

RACHAEL BROWN: But the case has confirmed the suspicions of many in Greece that tax evasion and corruption run to the very top of society.

Mr Vaxevanis says it’s a joke.

COSTAS VAXEVANIS (translated): The whole political system is in this list. The government threw it in the toilet. It’s not just ridiculous, it’s like a cartoon. It offends our intellect.

Meanwhile, there are people looking in rubbish bins to find something to eat.

They knew there was a list with over 2,000 names from only one bank. Imagine what could be the case with other banks.

RACHAEL BROWN: Matina Stevis is a Greek ex-pat and journalist with Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal.

She says Greece’s harsh privacy laws may explain Mr Vaxevanis’ arrest, but not the speed at which it was executed.

MATINA STEVIS: What is definitely evident here is the hypocrisy on the part of Greek authorities, and within 24 hours he’s arrested and taken to court.

This list, however, which contains thousands of names that could and should be investigated for potential tax evasion, has been around Athens for two years, and no-one has acted on that.

Cicero’s saying “Laws are silent in time or war” comes to mind when looking at this case.  The political atmosphere in Greece is toxic. A list of Greek citizens who have underpayed (at least) their taxes by repatriating some or much of their wealth to Switzerland is bound to attract huge public attention.  And the journalist who leaked it is effective at pressing his case.  The Guardian article  Greece is governed by a corrupt clique, says Kostas Vaxevanis makes that plain.  Clear headed consideration of the issues seems to have been overridden by knee jerk reactions on both sides.  The case became a prop to a political drama rather than a legal case.

The article provides:

Greece is undergoing a crisis of democracy with press censorship at its centre, says the magazine editor in the middle of the media storm that has engulfed Athens. Speaking to the Guardian a day after being cleared of breaching privacy laws, Kostas Vaxevanis said Greece was ruled by a clique of corrupt politicians in thrall to businessmen who owned – and gagged – the media.

“There’s a huge problem in Greece, a problem of democracy and essence,” he said in his fifth-floor office, surrounded by copies of Hot Doc, the investigative magazine that last week published the names of more than 2,000 high-earning Greeks with bank accounts in Switzerland. “The country is governed by a poisonous combination of politicians, businessmen and journalists who cover one another’s backs. Every day laws are changed, or new laws are voted in, to legitimise illegal deeds.”

With a substantial chunk of the Greek media owned by magnates or financed by banks, journalists were in effect silenced. “It’s tragic. Greeks only ever learn half the truth and that is worse than lies because it has the effect of creating impressions,” he said.

“Had it not been for the foreign media taking such an interest in my own story, it would have been buried. With few exceptions, hardly any of the Greek media bothered to report that I was acquitted, when CNN and the BBC were breaking into their news broadcasts to do so. The international media is playing the role it played during the [1967-74] dictatorship, when Greeks would listen to foreign outlets to find out what was really going on in this country.”

The 46-year-old, who set up Hot Doc with €5,000 of his own money six months ago, said that while independent journalism was difficult in Greece, his vindication had been a victory for freedom of the press and a justice system also besmirched by accusations of corruption.

Politicians had had more than two years to act on the list, handed to Greek authorities by the IMF head, Christine Lagarde, who was then French finance minister, but had not investigated it.

“Lagarde gave similar lists to Germany, France, Spain and Italy, and in each of those countries it was acted on and revenues in turn were accrued. Here, they are constantly saying they will deal with tax evasion, because it is the root of our country’s economic problems, and they did absolutely nothing because there are people on the list who are friends of those in power,” he said.

Vowing to tackle the establishment “because that is what Greeks want,” Vaxevanis insisted Hot Doc would continue unearthing scandals. “The political elite have got used to the mainstream press not annoying them, but investigation is what we do,” he said, looking tired, if relieved, after several sleepless nights.

“I don’t think the decision to bring me before the court was the work of an overzealous prosecutor. I think it was very deliberate and very vindictive.

“No one knew my whereabouts the day I was arrested and suddenly there were 50 state security operatives surrounding the house, which would suggest my phone was being monitored. When the prosecutor came, he didn’t even have a proper arrest warrant. But what I will never forget is how so many of the police who were present that day actually congratulated me for doing what I had done.”


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