Athens, Greece - The late night acquittal on Thursday of journalist Kostas Vaxevanis was met with an eruption of applause in courtroom number one, building two, of the Athens judicial compound. “The court has found you innocent,” was all the judge had time to say.
Vaxevanis had faced a year in prison and a 30,000 euro ($38,500) fine for allegedly breaching Greek privacy law. His offence was to publish the names of what purports to be the infamous Lagarde List, a spreadsheet of more than 2,000 influential Greeks with Swiss bank accounts who might warrant investigation as tax evaders. It is named after the former French finance minister, now IMF chief, who handed it to her Greek counterpart, Yiorgos Papakonstantinou, in 2010.
“A junior court judge had the courage to go against the prosecutor's office which created all the fuss in the first place, to listen to society, to see the results of all this activity surrounding the revelation of the list and of course to see the truth.” Vaxevanis told Al Jazeera after the verdict was announced.
His arrest last Sunday was the latest in a series of events that seemed to suggest that Greece may be losing its press freedom as the country’s economic situation becomes desperate. Days earlier, two state television presenters were suspended for discussing on air whether the public order minister should resign, following the alleged beating of anti-racism protesters in a police station. A fortnight earlier, the head of Greece’s official news agency, AMNA, was removed before the end of his term. In a press release he claimed that it was partly because he refused to suppress a story about the Lagarde List.
One defence witness smarted at being asked whether Vaxevanis was right to publish. “It is a pillar of journalism that you don’t suppress information,” said Abelkrim Bumelha, president of the London-based International Federation of Journalists. “I deal with this question in the Congo, in Gambia, not here, in the mother of democracy.” He called the case “absurd”.
The government has direct influence on appointments in state-controlled media; but two people close to Prime Minister Antonis Samaras told Al Jazeera that Vaxevanis’ arrest was solely a judicial initiative the premier’s office had nothing to do with. “They botched it,” one source said.
Greece arrests editor for 'Lagarde list' leak
Samaras has tried to deliver on a promise of transparency with actions. In late September, he ordered the financial crimes squad to deliver dossiers on thirty politicians to the Supreme Court prosecutor for judicial action. Eight of those politicians are currently serving members of parliament for his conservative New Democracy party.
But the lack of any apparent investigation into the estates of wealthy Greeks on the Lagarde List has recently fuelled speculation that the government simply lacks the political will to bring the rich and powerful to account.
Vaxevanis’ defence team believes that publication of the list, which includes few politicians’ names, absolves them and relieves them of unhealthy speculation.
“The worst thing any leadership may have is to be constantly questioned as to its legitimacy,” said defence attorney Haris Ikonomopoulos. “What we want is to clear the air and get back to the issues. And the issues are three: Justice, effective governance and hope.”
'Baying for blood'
Greeks’ sense of all three has been hammered during the crisis, as they have seen the poor and middle class suffer repeated salary and pension cuts. Prime Minister Antonis Samaras told German Chancellor Angela Merkel that Greeks had lost a third of their living standards since 2008.
The prosecutor accused Vaxevanis of tapping into popular anger to sell magazines. “Because society is baying for blood, Vaxevanis delivered it, turning the country into a Colosseum, without caring about whether these people are innocent. He said ‘crucify them.’ And I ask, is anthropophagy, is cannibalism, is throwing people onto the pyre, a solution to the country’s problems?”
Vaxevanis, who had been careful not to publish sensitive information such as bank balances alongside the names, said the finer points of privacy law were not the real issue. The crux of the matter, he said, was that successive governments missed an opportunity to rein in billions in potentially lost tax revenues.
Opposition lawmaker Zoi Konstantopoulou revealed what she considered shockingly evasive behaviour from authorities. As a member of parliament’s Institutions and Transparency Committee, she has in the past fortnight deposed two former finance ministers and three former heads of the financial crimes squad, who were responsible for apprehending tax evaders.
“Not the slightest action had been taken to further the interests of the Greek state and people,” she told the court. “[Former finance minister Yiorgos] Papakonstantinou said he handed the original CD to his staff for safekeeping, but now doesn’t know its whereabouts.” She was even pithier about his successor, current socialist party leader and coalition member Evangelos Venizelos. “He says he only ever received printed pages, and doesn’t know where they are. ‘They were lost, or thrown away. I don’t know,’ he said.”
Venizelos did finally give an electronic copy of the spreadsheet to Samaras, who in turn passed it on to current financial crimes squad head Stelios Stasinopoulos. “Stasinopoulos says he never opened it,” testified Konstantopoulou. “He locked it in his office and gave a copy to the financial prosecutor.”
"Greece is being governed by a closed group of interests… comprising businesspeople, politicians and a few journalists"
- Costas Vaxevanis, journalist
The two former heads of the financial crimes squad say they were never officially asked to investigate the list, which meant that they could not register it as an official state document. Thus the list remains in limbo, since even during the trial the prosecutor did not ask for a copy of the full data in Vaxevanis’ possession.
Vaxevanis offered an explanation as to why authorities have been so loath to prosecute the list. “Greece is being governed by a closed group of interests… comprising businesspeople, politicians and a few journalists,” he said. “The Lagarde List is a document that proves what everyone suspects – that a powerful elite… enjoys the privilege that no one dares move against them.”
Vaxevanis blames that elite for covering up his arrest. “I want to thank Al Jazeera and the international media who put the story in its real context, saying that this is a question of democracy and freedom of speech in Greece, and created the conditions for coverage within the country,” Vaxevanis said after his acquittal.
Most of Greece’s national newspapers and television networks are owned by an oligarchy of powerful shipping, construction and petroleum refining interests. Vaxevanis’ arrest last Sunday went practically unnoticed by the Greek media. “The Greek networks knew nothing, and found out what was going on from the international media, just like in the time of the dictatorship.”
Greece emerged from a seven-year military dictatorship in 1974, during which the media were censored and politicians tried to disseminate their message through foreign correspondents.
There are signs that the publication of the list may already have stirred the government to action. Earlier in the week, the government announced it was mailing 15,000 taxpayers with Swiss bank accounts a supplementary tax declaration, telling them that their savings abroad were inconsistent with their earnings at home. The group was only part of a list of 54,000 under investigation, it said.
If the government can demonstrate earnings from wealthy tax evaders, that may go a long way towards restoring confidence in institutions. Popular feeling has been overwhelmingly on Vaxevanis’ side. As a pensioner put it outside the court house, “Why are they haranguing the poor chap? He committed no crime. I read the list in the paper. He only told the truth.”