ATHENS -- An Athens court on Thursday acquitted a Greek journalist accused of breaching privacy and data protection laws for publishing a list of more than 2,000 Greeks with Swiss bank accounts.
The trial, an exhausting and at times comic 11-hour spectacle, raised questions of Greece’s press freedom and failing attempts to tackle tax evasion. It also touched off debate over what pundits, politicians and defense attorneys deemed “an unapologetic” use of force and influence by the state to cover up corrupt political practices.
If convicted, Kostas Vaxevanis, a prominent investigative journalist and publisher of Hot Doc magazine, would have faced a minimum 12-month imprisonment, plus a fine of $39,000.
“The court finds you innocent,” the presiding judge told Vaxevanis, offering no legal reasoning for her decision.Since his weekend arrest, the 46-year-old journalist has insisted that the list he published was identical to a roster of names and data the Greek government was given two years ago by then-French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde to pursue tax cheats.
There was no suggestion that the 2,059 Greek holders of HSBC bank accounts in Geneva were tax cheats. Still, in the course of Thursday’s heated hearing, defense attorneys and a key political witness argued that the list had been shelved, with politicians failing to probe potential tax evasion.
“This list was a tool that could have helped the state reap hundreds of millions of euros from potential tax evasion,” said Zoe Konstantopoulou, a leftist lawmaker and member of a cross-party parliamentary commission probing possible political negligence in the case. “It could have spared the country from seeking an international bailout and signing up to the punishing terms of austerity.”
“Instead,” she said in a small, squalid courtroom packed with observers, “it was never fully exploited and the list itself has gone missing with one finance minister saying his staff misplaced it somewhere, the other laying blame on other officials.”
The government has repeatedly refused to comment on the case, and throughout Thursday’s trial the judge consistently removed or ignored any mention of politics.
Since the commission began investigating the case months ago, officials who have testified have shed little light on allegations of political malfeasance in vetting potential tax dodgers, suspected of cheating the government out of an estimated $38 billion a year.
Fearing further leaks and exposes, authorities have moved to muzzle the news media. On Wednesday, for example, a second investigative journalist and television presenter was arrested for promising to reveal hacked documents of the country’s treasury. Earlier in the week, two television presenters at the country’s state-run broadcaster, NET, were suspended for commenting on allegations of police brutality.
With tens of thousands of Greeks following protest tweets and a string of name-and-shame campaigns going viral on the Internet, the state’s arm-twisting of the news media cast a pall over the government’s bid to secure extra aid, and time, from its lenders to fix the faltering Greek economy and endemic weaknesses, such as widespread corruption and tax evasion.
What’s more, the cases have stoked public fury, with scores of crisis-crippled Greeks scrambling to the side of the prosecuted journalists, now portrayed as heroes crusading against a corrupt political establishment.
“I’m pained to be here in the cradle of democracy defending the right to press freedom,” said Jim Boumelha, president of the International Federation of Journalists. “These are questions and issues I face in Gambia, not in a Western society.”
Vaxevanis said the trial was not about him, but "all about a corrupt oligarchy of businessmen, politicians and controlled media that have long acted against the interest of the nation and its people.”
“Now,” he said, “this will allow journalists to do their job.”ALSO:
-- Anthee Carassava
Photo: Kostas Vaxevanis addresses reporters
outside the courtroom in Athens on Thursday. Credit: Orestis Panagiotou / European Pressphoto Agency