In a victory for free speech in the country where democracy was founded, a Greek court acquitted journalist Kostas Vaxevanis, who edits an independent magazine, Hot Doc, of charges of breaching privacy. Vaxevanis was arrested last month after publishing a list of 2,059 names of wealthy Greeks suspected of evading taxes by putting their money into Swiss bank accounts. Among those on the list are a former culture minister, several employees of the country’s Finance Ministry and prominent figures in business and journalism.
A prosecutor charged that Vaxevanis had “offered blood and turned the country into a coliseum.” The journalist countered that his publication of the names was “not a legal issue, but a very important social and political one,” with implications for Greece’s broken economy.
“Lagarde’s List” of Tax-Evading Elites
Vaxevanis, who faced up to two years in jail and a €30,000 fine (£24,000) if convicted, has asserted that the names he published are simply the same as those leaked by a former HSBC computer technician in Geneva. This list was found in January of 2009 when French police found computer files for 130,000 tax evaders; they passed the names on to Christine Lagarde, who is now the chief of the International Monetary Fund. As France’s finance minister in 2010, Lagarde passed the list on an unmarked CD to Greece’s former finance minister, George Papaconstantinou, when Greece was trying to crack down on tax evaders to help its (still) ailing economy.
Papaconstantinou claims he gave the head of the tax police the names of those with the biggest balances and that he was not pleased with the lack of follow-up. Papaconstantinou has since been replaced by two other finance ministers. The whereabouts of the list are unclear, with Papaconstantinou saying that he left it “at the office”and media outlets are saying that he lost it.
At his one-day trial, Vaxevanis accused politicians of simply holding onto the list and doing nothing, while protecting certain “untouchable” magnates and their money while the majority of Greek people have been suffering through round after round of austerity measures that the government has insisted must be carried out for Greece’s economy to recover and to keep it in the European Union. As Vaxevanis noted in his testimony, one of those named on the list, Greek oligarch and former Proton Bank chairman Lavrentis Lavrentiadis, was given a $129 million bailout under former finance minister and current Socialist party leader Evangelos Venizelos.
A Crisis of Democracy in Greece
Greece is in the midst of a “crisis of democracy” and is currently run by a coalition government whose members are “in thrall” to businessmen who own, and censor, the media, Vaxevanis said after his acquittal. Here are 5 reasons that democracy is endangered in the country where it was born:
1. Possible ties between the police and the Golden Dawn
Vaxevanis was arrested shortly after he published “Lagarde’s list” by a swarm of some 50 police officers. In contrast, after Golden Dawn MP Illias Kasidiaris was arrested for assaulting two left-wing MPs on live television, police were somehow unable to locate him for days. Kasidiaris finally turned himself in.
2. Protesters allegedly tortured by the police
15 Greek anti-fascist protesters who were arrested after they clashed with members of the neo-Nazi party, the Golden Dawn, on September 30 say they were subjected to what their lawyer called “Abu Ghraib-style humiliation” and torture. 25 people who were protesting the next day in support of their fellow anti-fascists were themselves arrested and beaten and made to strip naked while in custody.
The anti-fascist protest was held after a group of 80-100 people vandalized a Tanzanian community center in a central Athens neighborhood near Aghios Panteleimon, which is considered a stronghold of support for the Golden Dawn.
The Greek minister for public order, Nikos Dendias, threatened to sue the Guardian for its coverage of the abuses but has not followed through with his statement.
3. TV news show critical of the government axed
After journalists Kostas Arvanitis and Marilena Kasimi reported that Dendias had not followed through on his threats to sue the Guardian, they were subsequently informed that their morning news show on NET, one of Greece’s national TV stations, was being axed. Previous governments had already reduced the show’s airtime from four to two hours, says the New Statesman.
4. Growing divide between the rich and the poor
The gulf between the elites on “Lagarde’s list” and most Greeks grows day by day, with some people searching through dumpsters for food, as Vaxevanis wrote before his trial.
Recent statistics from the Hellenic Statistical Authority (ELSTAT) show that 2.3 million Greeks were living below the poverty line in 2010. The report also emphasized that “Greece is among the European countries with the greatest financial inequalities, as the richest 20 percent of the population had an annual income that was six times that of the poorest 20 percent.”
5. Ongoing economic woes and austerity measures on the way
The economic forecast for Greece is as bleak as ever, with one out of four people unemployed and the economy in its fifth year of recession. If the Greek Parliament, the Vouli, passes the next round of austerity measures demanded by the EU to receive bailout funds, Greece’s health budget will fall to 6 percent of its GDP. In comparison, the European average was 8.3 per cent in 2008; in most countries including Germany and France, the health budget is over 10 percent.
Greece is a member of the EU and other European governments, such as those of Germany and France, have backed the current Greek government. But doing so has made them complicit in that government and its policies, including its suppression of free speech, as Greek investigative journalist Yiannis Baboulias explains in the New Statesman: ” By standing by in silence, the EU is allowing a government that grows more oppressive and authoritarian every day to silence us.”
“Us,” as in Greeks. “Us,” as in all of us who believe in democracy and why we must fight to keep it alive in Greece, in the EU and around the world.
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