KRVS

A Crusading Journalist's Arrest Spurs Greek Anger

Nov 1, 2012
Originally published on November 1, 2012 5:41 am

The Greek government faces widespread condemnation for prosecuting Kostas Vaxevanis, a 46-year-old investigative journalist who recently published the names of Greeks who may have sent billions to Swiss bank accounts.

Vaxevanis, one of Greece's best-known reporters, is in court in Athens on Thursday to face charges that he violated data protection laws by publishing the list of names in Hot Doc, the biweekly magazine he edits. If convicted, he faces up to five years in prison.

When the magazine hit newsstands Saturday, it set off a quicksilver response by the Greek judicial system, which is infamous for its glacial pace. Within hours, police issued a warrant for Vaxevanis' arrest. By Monday, he was facing a judge to set a trial date. When he emerged from the courtroom, more than 200 supporters applauded him.

"Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed," he told the crowd, quoting George Orwell. "The rest is public relations."

Background Of The 'Lagarde List'

The list Vaxevanis published is named for Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund. In 2010, when Lagarde served as France's finance minister, she got a hold of the leaked names of more than 2,000 Greeks who transferred their money to HSBC bank in Switzerland.

Swiss bank accounts are legal, but are sometimes used to hide money and avoid taxes. Tax evasion, especially by the wealthy, cost Greece at least $36 billion in 2009.

Lagarde gave the list to her Greek counterpart at the time, Finance Minister George Papaconstantinou. Two years went by; nothing happened.

Vaxevanis, whose small team of investigative reporters works out of a small office in a weathered shopping mall, says that changed a few weeks ago when officials confirmed the existence of the list.

"Then we had ministers declaring that they couldn't find [the] list, that they lost it, that they slipped it into a pocket somewhere," he says. "It's like a cartoon. Greek society was watching, sickened. The whole world already thinks we're thieves. So now that this list is out there, it needs to be investigated."

Vetting The Names

About two weeks ago, Vaxevanis says, he received the list in an envelope, along with a letter, which claimed that the Lagarde List had been used to blackmail people.

"Whoever wrote that letter told me that we needed to get the truth out, or [Greece's] problems would just get worse," Vaxevanis says.

He says he and his reporters went through every name on the list to check its authenticity, which he vouches for. He estimates that more than $16 billion had moved through the accounts between 1998 and 2007.

The list includes industrialists, ship owners, and a few politicians and their relatives. But Vaxevanis was careful not to accuse anyone of tax evasion, or to publish the amounts in each account.

"We only gave their names and jobs," he says.

Papaconstantinou and his successor as finance minister, Evangelos Venizelos, have both taken heat for their inaction on the list. Papaconstantinou told a parliamentary panel last month that he couldn't use the list because an employee of HSBC had leaked the names illegally. Papaconstantinou said he then put the names on a memory stick, which he gave to Ioannis Diotis, the head of Greece's financial crime units. Diotis later passed it on to Venizelos, who now leads the center-left PASOK party.

'It's Outrageous'

Vaxevanis says he hoped the government would investigate the list now that he's made it public. Instead, the government filed criminal charges against him.

"It's outrageous," says law professor Aristides Hatzis. "Theoretically, this is supposed to be a democratic country and the place, as we like to say, where democracy was born. But this is not the way a proper democracy behaves. The authorities are treating a journalist who performed a public service like a criminal. It's going to backfire."

It's already angered Martina Loukidi, whose taxes come out of her tiny paycheck. She works at a flower shop, making $580 a month — half the monthly pay she earned last year.

She says working-class and middle-class Greeks are paying the price for austerity while the rich keep living large.

"The rich have connections," she says. "They cozy up to politicians who help them hide their money. Politicians should go to jail. Why should a journalist go to jail? Because he told the truth?"

Greeks also believe it's suspicious for the government to prosecute Vaxevanis so quickly, Hatzis says.

"They saw it exactly as it was — a cover-up," he says. "It's a way of treating things. It's a mentality."

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The government Greece is facing international condemnation for arresting a respected investigative journalist. His crime was publishing a list of names of wealthy Greeks, who may have hidden billions to Swiss bank accounts. Many Greeks are outraged that the journalist is going on trial today, rather than the politicians who have known about the list for two years and refused to act on it.

Joanna Kakissis reports.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: The Greek judicial system usually moves a glacial pace. But after investigative journalist Kostas Vaxevanis published what's called the Lagarde List last weekend, authorities rushed him to court.

On Saturday, the list came out in his magazine, Hot Doc. On Monday, he faced a judge who set his trial for today.

More than 200 supporters outside the courthouse applauded him.

(APPLAUSE)

KOSTAS VAXEVANIS: (Spoken in foreign language)

KAKISSIS: Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed, Vaxevanis told the crowd. The rest is public relations. He was quoting George Orwell.

The list he published is named after Christine Lagarde, the current IMF leader who was French finance minister in 2010. That's when someone leaked the names of more than 2,000 Greeks who transferred their money to a bank in Switzerland.

Of course, Swiss bank accounts are perfectly legal, though people are known to park their cash there to avoid paying taxes. Lagarde got hold of the list and gave it to the Greek government. For two years, nothing happened. Vaxevanis says that changed a few weeks ago, when officials confirmed the existence of the list.

VAXEVANIS: (Through Translator) And then we had ministers declaring that they couldn't find this list, that they lost it, that they slipped it into a pocket somewhere. It's like a cartoon. Greek society was watching, sickened. The whole world already thinks we're thieves. So now that this list is out there, it needs to be investigated.

KAKISSIS: But instead of investigating the list, the government filed criminal charges against Vaxevanis. Authorities say he violated data protection laws by revealing the names, which included politicians, ship owners, and industrialists.

Vaxevanis says he's verified that the list is authentic. He suspects that up to $16 billion may have moved through those accounts between 1998 and 2007. Tax evasion, especially by the wealthy, cost Greece as much as $36 billion in 2009.

Martina Loukidi says her taxes come out of her tiny paycheck. She works at a flower shop, where makes $580 a month - half the monthly pay she earned last year. She says Greeks like her are paying the price for austerity while the rich keep living large.

MARTINA LOUKIDI: (Through Translator) The rich have connections. They cozy up to politicians who help them hide their money. Politicians should go to jail. Why should a journalist go to jail? Because he told the truth?

KAKISSIS: And Greeks believe it's suspicious for the government to prosecute Vaxevanis so quickly, says law professor Aristides Hatzis.

ARISTIDES HATZIS: They saw it exactly as it was - a cover-up. It's a way of treating things. It's a mentality.

KAKISSIS: The government will not comment, except to say that it's merely following the law. But Vaxevanis says the state must stop applying the law selectively and see the big picture - that Greeks are desperate for a transparent government.

VAXEVANIS: (Spoken in foreign language)

KAKISSIS: I received the Lagarde list in an envelope, he says. There was also a letter inside that said the list has been used for blackmail. Please tell the truth, the letter said, or our problems will just get worse.

Vaxevanis faces up to five years in prison if he's convicted.

For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Athens. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.