A small victory for press freedom in Greece’s struggle against its cleptocracy

A couple of hours ago, Kostas Vaxevanis, editor of HOT DOC, was acquitted by an Athenian court for having published the so-called Lagarde List. The charge was that he violated data protection legislation by publishing a list of more than two thousand names who had held a bank account with HSBC in Geneva. The not-guilty verdict was a great victory for those who value a free press in a country whose press freedom is severely tested, alongside with all facets of Greece’s social fabric, by a cleptocracy hanging desperately onto power, and in the context of the debilitating Depression which is Greece’s lot within the current Eurozone Crisis.

In his HOT DOC exposé, Vaxevanis had prefaced the list by stating quite categorically that the people mentioned on the list were innocent until proven guilty; that most of them, if not all, may have committed no act of tax evasion or corruption and that they had every right to hold an account with HSBC’s Geneva branch. So, why publish it?

The reason of course is that this was not just some list that was leaked to the magazine. It was a list that was sent, in 2010, to the Greek Minister of Finance at the time, Mr George Papakonstantinou, by the, then, French Minister of Finance, Ms Christine Lagarde – who now heads the IMF, one of the three constituent parts of the troika of lenders and inspectors that is currently fiscally waterboarding Greece, demanding of the Greek government the most savage cuts in pensions and welfare payments in the history of civilised society. Ms Lagarde’s move, to send that list to George Papakonstantinou, had a singular purpose: to help the Greek government with its background investigations and checks in tax evasion by Greece’s powers-that-be.

Such lists were sent by Ms Lagarde to both the German and the Spanish governments. According to various reports, the three governments (French, German and Spanish) put these lists to good use and managed to extract additional taxes from HSBC-Geneva account holders whose tax returns failed to square up to the balances in their Swiss bank account. Except of course the Greek government which sat on its hands, letting this opportunity go to waste.

The Greek public was oblivious to the existence of the Lagarde list until recently when a former Serious Tax Fraud Squad employee mentioned it in passing. At that point, Mr Papakonstantinou claimed that he passed the list on to the Head of the Serious Tax Fraud Squad, asking him to investigate. The latter denies this, saying that he was given an unofficial copy, on a USB stick, but was never instructed to investigate. To add to the debacle, Mr Papakonstantinou’s successor, Evangelos Venizelos (who now is the Leader of the, now decimated, PASOK party) claims that he never received the list from his predecessor but that a copy of the USB stick ended up on his desk. He also presented the inane argument that the list could not be acted upon because it constituted illegally solicited private data.

To cut a long story short, for a month now, the Lagarde list was the bone of contention in the Greek public debate. Two former finance ministers and two heads of the Serious Tax Fraud Squad were trying desperately to pass the buck amongst one another, a most disreputable and depressing spectacle in view of the fact that, at precisely the same time, the troika and the new Greek government were (and still are) negotiating misanthropic reductions in social benefits, pensions and wages (including the ending of health cover for the long term unemployed, and extracting income tax from those that the Greek state officially recognize to be below the poverty line). The Greek state, in short, was passing on the opportunity to extract many millions of evaded taxes by captains of industry, bankers etc. while squeezing blood out of the most vulnerable, helpless citizens.

In this context, when Kostas Vaxevanis (one of a handful of independently minded investigative journalists) published the list (after having removed the sums of money in each bank account), he dealt a major blow to the duplicity and hypocrisy of the Greek establishment. For starters, he dispelled the officials’ denials that the list existed; he destroyed their claims that it had been lost. Moreover, when the state prosecutor (who had been conspicuously idle and absent when the list, and its fate, were being discussed; never bothering to investigate its whereabouts and the officials’ role and responsibility in covering up the affair) moved within minutes of the list’s publication in HOT DOC to have Vaxevanis arrested, he proved beyond dispute that when the Greek state wants to move fast, it can. But never when such a ‘move’ puts in jeopardy the interests of the strong and powerful; of the cleptocracy that is, still, ruling Greece!

Vaxevanis’ acquittal is a rare ray of light in the dark reality of Greece’s press and mass media. Tax evasion is only one of the three tentacles with which Greece’s cleptocracy is preventing our social economy from breathing and standing on its feet again, with some pride and poise. The other two are: (A) a mostly unfree mass media, controlled with an iron fist by corrupt bankrupt bankers (who are rewarded with de-nationalised banks, rather than with… prosecution) and crooked developers (whose cozy relationship with government is legendary), and (B) a political class that, after the country collapsed in 2010, are now hiding behind Greece’s lenders, perpetuating their power by terrorising the electorate into accepting bailout and austerity terms&conditions which sink the country deeper into its Great Depression.

Kosta Vaxevanis’ acquittal is but a small victory in this long, repugnant war against common decency and humanity. It may be a shooting star in an endless, dark, winter night. But it is still worth celebrating. For while the cleptocrats care not one iota about moral authority, the rest of us may stiffen our tone, get a dose of courage, and lift our chins before returning to fight the good fight.

Below you can watch a related interview on the matter on RT. Later, I followed this up with a CNN interview for which I have not found a link yet.