A journalist is cleared of violating privacy laws as government presses more austerity.
By Andy Dabilis for Southeast European Times in Athens -- 02/11/12
Costas Vaxevanis (right) was acquitted of charges of breaching the privacy of more than 2,000 people who have deposits in a Swiss bank. [AFP]
A Greek journalist who published on his website a list of 2,059 names of Greeks with 1.5 billion euros in deposits in a Swiss bank has been acquitted of charges of breaching their privacy in a case that pitted a strained government against freedom of the press.
Costas Vaxevanis was brought to trial only three days after he published the list and complained that tax evaders have gone unpunished for years at a time when Greece is suffering a crushing economic crisis and putting the burden on workers, pensioners and the poor.
Prosecutors said the publication of the names endangered people on the list, which includes prominent businessmen, shipowners, lawyers, doctors, journalists and a former minister, as well as companies, housewives and students. He faced a fine of up to 30,000 euros and two years in jail if convicted.
Vaxevanis had said it should not be assumed that all those on the list were evading taxes but complained that the government hadn't even checked, and said some depositors could not justify how much was in their accounts. No deposit sums were published.
Judge Malia Volika declared him innocent and rejected the charges, embarrassing the government of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, which has been cracking down on media critics.
The ruling was met with applause.
"I did what all journalists would have done," Vaxevanis said as he left the courtroom. "It is my job to publish this list, even if my father were on the list, I would have published it."
Vaxevanis, 46, stressed that he was obliged to publish the list because the government – including two former finance ministers and two former financial crimes prosecutors – had failed to act on it.
The original list was given to Greek authorities two years ago by then-French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde, now the head of the IMF, one of Greece's Troika of lenders putting up 239 billion euros in two bailouts to keep the country afloat and which has been pressuring the government to hunt down tax cheats.
The timing of the case was sensitive as Samaras, the New Democracy Conservative leader who has been in power only since June, is struggling to get his coalition partners, the PASOK Socialists and Democratic Left to go along with a package of 13.5 billion euros in new austerity measures that is set to go before parliament on November 7th. Greek labor unions have called a two-day general strike next week, putting a further strain on the government.
Nikos Koutsiaras, a lecturer at the School of Law, Economics and Political Sciences at the University of Athens, said the government brought the charges "out of panic."
"What they are trying to do is cut the public reaction against these measures and the Lagarde list has brought arguments in favor of those who believe the government is against the poor strata of society in favor of the rich," he told SETimes.
Dan McCormack, head of the department of communication at the American College of Greece and a journalism professor, told SETimes that the case was troubling.
"As the Greek political class is getting weaker it seems there is a trend to exercise more power over journalists," he said. "It's possible it's not about censorship but confusion with people at the top in a very defensive position right now."
Stathis Efstathiadis, a journalist with the Athens newspaper To Vima and a member of the honorary council of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, told SETimes that the case, "was a stupid intervention by the government." But he said, "Mr. Vaxevanis and his publication are of no particular importance so I don't think there was a political motive."