Friday, November 2, 2012

Greek free speech editor Kostas Vaxevanis acquitted over leaked 'tax evader' list

Greek editor Kostas Vaxevanis (right): “My job is simply to tell the news and tell it straight.
My job is to tell the truth,” he says. Photo: Orestis Panagiotou/EPA
By HELENA SMITH, reporting from Athens for The Guardian
KOSTA VAXEVANIS hates being the centre of attention. On Thursday moments before taking the stand in one of the most sensational trials to grip Greece in modern times, the journalist said he was not in the business of making news. "My job is simply to tell the news and tell it straight," he averred. "My job is to tell the truth."

Truth in the case of Vaxevanis has been a rollercoaster that has catapulted the 46-year-old from relative obscurity to global stardom in a matter of days. But, after a hearing that lasted almost 12 hours – with a three-member panel of judges sitting stony-faced throughout, he was vindicated: the court found him not guilty of breaking data privacy laws by publishing the names in Hot Doc, the weekly magazine he edits, of some 2059 Greeks believed to have bank accounts in Switzerland.

"Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed; everything else is public relations," Vaxevanis said, citing George Orwell, before observers packed into the crammed courtroom broke into applause. "As such it was my duty to reveal this list."

Even before Thursday's court drama – proceedings that veered from comic to tragic as handcuffed Asian migrants looked on in bewilderment – the nation was up in arms over the list.

In the two years since it had been handed to Greek authorities by the IMF's chief Christine Lagarde, the infamous tally of suspected tax evaders had caught the popular imagination. With tax avoidance widely blamed for the debt-stricken country's inability to balance the books, the failure of successive governments to act on the list and crack down on tax evaders had raised suspicions that corrupt vested interests ran to the top of society.

"It is quite clear the political system did everything not to publish this list," said Vaxevanis, who had faced up to two years in jail and a €30,000 fine (£24,000) if convicted.

"If you look at the names, or the offshore companies linked to certain individuals, you see that these are all friends of those in power. Phoney lists had also begun to circulate. It was time for the truth," he told the Guardian during a recess.

Tax evasion rampant
"We live in a country where, on the one hand, tax evasion is rampant and, on the other, people are eating out of rubbish trucks because of salary cuts, because they can't make ends meet."

Three years after Europe's worst crisis in decades erupted in Athens, Vaxevanis has emerged as an unwitting crusader – a defender of truth in an environment ever more electrified by the perceived menaces of malfeasance and mendacity.

Five days after a public prosecutor ordered his arrest – dispatching special agents to seize the journalist in a nation whose justice system has almost never moved with such alacrity – there are few who do not agree that his trial has been "politically motivated". For defence witnesses such as the popular singer Dimitra Galani, bringing Vaxevanis before the court was proof that even press freedom was now at risk in the birthplace of democracy. "The whole thing is absurd, the theatre of the absurd. Greeks really don't know what to think anymore," she said.

For veteran leftists such as Nikos Kostantopouloulos, one of the reporter's three lawyers, the affair was further evidence that the country at the centre of the continent's debt drama was falling down a very slippery slope. "We have a schizophrenic situation where, on the one hand, a journalist is being penalised for revealing a document in the interests of informing public opinion and, on the other, the parliament itself is now saying the handling of the list should be investigated."

From the outset, said Kostantopouloulos, a former leftist politician, the case had defied the principles of justice.

"Right down to the way the prosecutor so hastily issued the charge sheet without even bothering to stamp it, it has been handled very badly," he said. "Furthermore, none of those on the list have even filed a complaint about privacy violation."

With ordinary Greeks hammered by a fifth year of recession, the case has ignited widespread fury. The list, reprinted on Monday by the leading daily Ta Nea, includes politicians, businessmen, shipping magnates, doctors, lawyers – a far cry from those who have borne the brunt of relentless austerity measures on the margins of society.

'Stashing their loot'
"While we have been paying our taxes, some out there have been stashing their loot away in Switzerland, not being taxed at all," said Petros Hadzopoulos, a retiree, who had come to the court to get a glance of the journalist he called "his new, best hero". Hot Doc, which normally has a circulation of about 25,000, sold 100,000 last week.

As Athens teeters once again on the brink of bankruptcy – its public coffers set to run dry in less than a month – Vaxevanis's arrest has highlighted the pitfalls of press freedom in a nation where this week alone two anchors on state television were also fired for publicly "undermining" a minister.

The presenters' "crime" had been to question the failure of the public order minister Nikos Dendias to act on a threat to sue the Guardian for publishing a story alleging police torture of protesters that he said had "defamed Greek democracy".

For those packed into the chamber it was clear that in the birthplace of freedom, democracy itself was at stake. Yesterday's often shambolic proceedings, which frequently saw the panel's presiding female magistrate thumping the bench as she demanded "silence" under an icon of Jesus Christ, included court-appointed interpreters being unable to translate with one confusing friend for French and absurd with illegal.

"I am very pained to have to be here in Greece the mother of democracy explaining the obvious," said Jim Boumela, who, as president of the International Federation of Journalists, flew in from London to testify at the trial.

"This is what I have to do in countries like Uganda," he said. "Kostas should be applauded for what he has done. It's a very worrying turn that journalists are being suppressed in Greece – and I think we are going to see more of it."

More than 500 individuals on the so-called "Lagarde list" of suspected tax evaders with secret bank accounts in Switzerland have been, or are currently, under investigation by UK Revenue and Customs for serious fraud.

Tax investigators are still working their way through the 6000 names on the list, two and a half years after it was handed over to the UK by then French Finance Minister, Christine Lagarde, who also passed versions to other European members states, including Greece.

While HMRC said its handling of the data was "a major success" and expected to recover hundreds of millions of unpaid taxes, only one person has been successfully prosecuted so far. The long-standing HMRC policy of reaching settlements and imposing penalties mean that the vast majority of those on the list are unlikely to be prosecuted or named as a result. - Ben Quinn

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