It’s a good thing that Costas Vaxevanis, one of a handful of legitimate journalists left in Greece in a country where too many are in the bag to politicians and the rich, wasn’t standing in front of a hole in the ground when he was arrested on phony charges of violating privacy laws, or Prime Minister Antonis Putin-Samaras would have shoved him and yelled: “This is Rich Greece!”
As Samaras readies to lower the boom again on workers, pensioners and the poor with another $17.45 billion in spending cuts and tax hikes while letting the country’s politicians and rich elite and tax cheats escape with near-impunity, the arrest of Vaxevanis for releasing the names of 2,059 people on a secret list of Greeks with $1.95 billion in deposits in a Swiss bank has triggered a media crackdown that threatens freedom of the press – and free speech itself.
Greek authorities have had the list for two years but didn’t act it so they could protect their friends, and instead of going after tax cheats the government decided to muzzle journalists in the same way Russian Dictator Vladimir Putin and all tyrants do. In Russia, journalists critical of the government have only one right: to remain dead. In Greece, they have none anymore, unless they want to be arrested for telling the truth that Samaras can’t handle.
If former finance ministers George Papaconstantinou and Evangelos Venizelos and two financial crimes prosecutors who all failed to act had vetted the list it could have identified tax cheats and separated them from those who had properly declared their incomes, not many when you look at who they are: politicians, businessmen, publishers, businessmen, ship owners. Vaxevanis said, “The entire system of power is shown to have transferred money abroad. And this is information from only one bank.”
He cautioned when he released the names there should not be any assumption everyone was a tax evader, but added that: “It is apparent that a large portion of deposits are not justified with the income of depositors. Proof is that most accounts were closed after the bank briefed on the data leaking.” He said he got it on a memory stick from an unnamed source who “believed that the list has been misused for political and economic purposes for two years.”
As he left court following his release before his trial, he said: “The public prosecutors’ office has shown a special interest in its dealings with me. I don’t know why this is the case, but I accept it.” Greece’s privacy laws are designed to protect the rich and powerful from scrutiny and Vaxevanis, who runs a web site called Hot Doc, was acting in the tradition of real journalism – which Greece’s mainstream papers, many of which are house organs for political parties and in bed with political leaders – failed to do.
BEAT THE PRESS
His case alone should have press associations – and people who believe in freedom – demanding that the Putin-Samaras government stop chasing journalists and start chasing tax cheats and the corrupt, even if that breaks up their incestuous circle. So far, only the Athens Bar Association has pointed out the hypocrisy of Vaxevanis being put on a fast track to prosecution while tax cheats – the few who were arrested in a phony PR move – and who owe the country they profess to love $70 billion won’t face a judge until the next decade.
“Against former ministers, who were by law responsible for utilizing the list and nevertheless ‘lost’ it, there has so far been no legal or other proceedings of any kind,” the ABA said. It accused the Samaras government of “protecting powerful social, economic and political elements,” saying that “such choices transmit the message to society as a whole that the democratic institutions of Greece, or what is left of them, are operating exclusively for the protection of the authority system itself, at the expense of constitutional legitimacy and the rights of the Greek people.”
All Samaras has done is give Vaxevanis the biggest soap box in the world to stand on and he took advantage of it to write a devastating commentary in the British newspaper The Guardian that put the lie to any notion that Samaras or any politician in Greece has any interest in the common good but want only to perpetuate power and privilege while letting workers, pensioners and the poor fight dogs for good as the government cuts salaries, raises taxes and slashes pensions.
Vaxevanis said he was being wrongly targeted. “Instead of arresting the tax evaders and the ministers who had the list in their hands, they are trying to arrest the truth and free journalism,” he said. He was arrested after police surrounded his house in a scene reminiscent of Greece’s ruling military junta from 1967-74 – or Putin’s Cops – rounding up critics.
MACE THE NATiON
Samaras didn’t stop there. His government arrested Spiros Karatzaferis, a small-town television reporter, before he could release classified documents hacked by the group Anonymous from the country’s general accountancy office that he said proved Greece faked its economic statistics so that it would be able to get bailouts from international lenders.
That came after State NET TV – funded with mandatory deductions from the paychecks of Greek workers – suspended Marilena Katsimi and Costas Arvanitis’ program after an on-air exchange in which they said a medical report supported allegations of torture of anti-government protesters and asked if Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias would resign because he denied there had been any mistreatment of people taken into custody.
Arvanitis said the decision to suspend him and Katsimi appeared to be politically motivated and an attempt to silence the few media voices that dare speak out. “This is not about us anymore, this is about censorship in state TV,” Arvanitis told Reuters in an interview. “Will we be given a list of words and comments that we are allowed to make, from now on?”
The Toronto Globe and Mail, in a scathing editorial, pointed out the truth that the Greek government can’t handle, while Greek media said little or either supported the prosecution of a fellow journalist, perhaps because they were embarrassed he was doing their work. “Greece’s arrest of a journalist who published a secret list of 2,000 people with Swiss bank accounts is a breathtaking attack on media freedom from a democratic country. The state should have no interest in suppressing publication of such a list,” the Canadian paper wrote.
While Vaxevanis is being prosecuted, Papaconstantinou is heading to Harvard to join failed former Prime Minister George Papandreou in teaching government and ducking responsibility, while Venizelos, a constitutional law professor, should be facing the bar and a judge to answer why he shouldn’t be tried for obstructing justice for not investigating the names on the list.
Vaxevanis accused authorities of double standards by citing the recent example of a newspaper that published a list of well-known artists and their declared incomes. “Journalism is uncovering the truth where others want to hide it. Everything else is nothing more than PR,” he said.
All he’s done is engage in proper civil disobedience of laws that hide the truth, not uncover it. If convicted, Vaxevanis faces penalties of a $39,000 fine and two years in jail, where, at least, he wouldn’t have to worry about sitting next to anyone with money or a politician.