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Greek Press Freedom is on Trial
Following is an open letter by Greek journalist and publisher of “Hot Doc” magazine Kostas Vaxevanis to European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso. Vaxevanis was arrested last October because he published the names of Greek bank account holders that were included in a list the IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde gave the Greek government in order to go after tax evaders. Although the Greek journalist was acquitted, he was scheduled to stand on trial again on June 10 for violating privacy laws. The letter to Mr. Barroso was first published in The Guardian, in its June 4 edition.
Dear President Barroso,
I will be standing trial on 10 June because, as a journalist, I published the names of Greek bank account holders contained on the Lagarde list in my anti-corruption magazine, Hot Doc. I am being accused of violating privacy laws.
On 28 October, a special section of the Hellenic police, under orders from the public prosecutor’s office, arrested me before the ink was dry on the issue of the magazine containing the names of people who should have been investigated for alleged tax evasion.
I was ushered hastily into a trial that ended with my acquittal. The court found that I had violated no privacy laws. I had published only the names of people who held bank accounts at HSBC without any other details, such as the amount of their deposits. My argument to the court was that someone’s relationship with a bank is not a personal detail, since no one covers their face to walk up to an ATM. The court also accepted my contention that there were reasons of public interest for the publication of the names on the Lagarde list.
As you may already know, a disc with the names of the Lagarde list was officially handed over to the Greek government for purposes of investigating corruption and tax evasion. This investigation never happened because ministers said the list is illegal and cannot be used. They reached the point of claiming that they’d lost the data.
The lack of an investigation created an atmosphere of mistrust in the political system. Greek governments appeared to be protecting alleged tax-dodgers, making the public angry. At the same time, behind the scenes, the list was being used for blackmail and defamation.
At Hot Doc, we decided to publish the list as soon as we reached the conclusion that the data we had was valid. This was our duty, as citizens and as journalists. This is when we found ourselves confronted with the events described by the New York Times and other international media: “Instead of hitting tax evasion, they chose to hit the journalist who exposed it.”
The Lagarde list is not only a list of potential tax dodgers. It captures the way corruption functions in Greece – with, unfortunately, the support of the political system.
After I was acquitted, the public prosecutor’s office did something unheard of in the annals of the judiciary for a court chaired by a single judge. They appealed against my acquittal, claiming that not all the incriminating evidence was taken into consideration. The original case file did not include a single element of evidence, not even the incriminating issue of the magazine. The charges were so hastily put together that they even forgot to put the official stamp of the prosecutor on the file.
President Barroso, this is a targeted and selective persecution against a magazine that fights corruption. We had to be punished. Since Hot Doc published the Lagarde list, three Greek newspapers have also published lists of taxpayers who are being investigated. One of the papers even ran the Lagarde list names with the amount of individual deposits. No charges were brought against them.
The trial on 10 June is not my trial but the trial of the independence of the Greek press. The current climate is asphyxiating freedom of the press, as independent media is heavily indebted and owners of TV channels pressure the government for contracts. Greece ranked 71st in press freedom this year behind several developing countries and military regimes. A Greek minister recently said he would sue The Guardian for revealing that Greek police were using torture.
Everyone is entitled to their opinion with regard to addressing the Greek crisis. But the crisis cannot be addressed without democratic principles. Greece is drifting away from the standards of western democracy as they were established after the Second World War. Truth in the media is the first victim.
I would like you to know that, if I am found guilty, I will not ask for a suspension of my sentence. I will let myself be taken to jail. This is the only way for me to show what is truly happening in this country, which has its roots in ancient Greek democracy and claims to embrace European democracy. A corrupt system of power in my country is persecuting me for the very same reasons for which I was awarded two international journalism prizes this year.
I believe that Europe is able to preserve democracy, to highlight its civilization and to unite its citizens. This cannot be achieved when people are not free and when the press is silenced.
Thank you for your attention.