Kostas Vaxevanis: paying the price for telling the truth
A Greek magazine editor is to appear before an Athens court, after publishing the names of more than 2000 Greeks who are alleged to hold a combined total of €2bn (£1.bn) in Swiss bank accounts. The list’s publication – and subsequent arrest of the editor – presents fresh questions about the appetite of the Greek authorities to clamp down on tax evasion at a time when the country is in economic turmoil, sparking accusations of a witchunt against whistleblowers.
Leading investigative journalist Kostas Vaxevanis was arrested on Sunday, after his weekly publication, Hot Doc, printed the list. It names prominent members of Greece’s political and business elite, as well as doctors, lawyers, and even actors.
Hot Doc claims that a copy of the same list was passed to the Greek Finance Ministry in 2010 by Christine Lagarde, France’s then Finance Minister and now head of the International Monitory Fund.
A legal adviser at the Finance Ministry has since told The New York Times that it was not deemed suitable for publication since an HSBC employee had leaked the document ‘illegally’.
Government fears over tax evasion confrontation
The revelations have led to fresh questions about which current and former government ministers had seen the list, and whether they had pursued legal action against the named individuals.
Speaking to The New York Times, a Finance Ministry representative said that they wanted to establish the accuracy of the list before considering their next move.
However, former finance minister George Papaconstantinou has suggested that the Greek tax authorities’ failure to act was motivated by fear of confronting the country’s elite tax evaders.
Quoted in The Guardian, Papaconstantinou claimed that the Lagarde List, as it is sometimes called, reveals only a brief glimpse of a much wider tax evasion problem that characterizes a ‘broken and corrupt system’.
‘There is a list from the Bank of Greece of 54,000 people who took €22bn out of the country. That is official and can be used in court. The first cheque found 6 billion that can’t be justified and letters are going to 15,000 people on that list who will be taxed at the 45% rate.’
Politicians named, journalists prosecuted
The controversial edition of Hot Doc hit newsstands only a day after Supreme Court deputy prosecutor Nikos Pantelis asked for Parliament to be briefed regarding any politicians on list. The centre-left daily also ran a report on the finances of Giorgos Voulgarakis, a former culture minister and a member of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras political party.
Voulgarakis, it was claimed, opened a Swiss HSBC account in 2003. He managed this jointly with his wife and a company based in Liberia, one of the ‘big 7’ offshore financial centres. The magazine alleges that these deposits do not show up on the ex-minister’s tax declarations. Voulgarakis has categorically denied that he or his wife have ever held foreign bank accounts.
Suspicion over the politicized nature of Vaxevanis’ arrest has been exacerbated by the fact that leading newspaper Ta Nea has not faced legal action for its publication of celebrity tax returns last month. While Hot Docs only printed the names of individuals holding Swiss HSBC bank accounts, Ta Nea’s article included a full disclosure of financial transactions.
According to Costas Douzinas, a Professor of Law at Birkbeck, that legal proceedings have only been taken against the publication which printed the names of politicians suggests that this was a ‘clear political intervention’, rather than an attempt to apply the law with equal weight against media organisations deemed to have breached privacy laws.
The question of whether Hot Docs illegally breached the privacy of those named partly hinges on the extent to which the revelations were in the ‘public interest’. In this case, the list’s publication represents a ‘classic case’ of information that should be disclosed to inform and aid public debate, according to Mike Harris from Index on Censorship.
‘It is clearly a matter of public interest to expose widespread criminality and alleged tax evasion. In Greece, where there is significant debate surrounding the large level of debt and how this can be dealt with, the exposure of criminality in financial dealings is crucial.’
Speaking in a video sent to Reuters, Vaxevanis said: ‘If anyone is accountable before the law then it is those ministers who hid the list, lost it and said it didn’t exist. I am a journalist and I did my job’.
If convicted, he faces a minimum year-long jail sentence and more than $39,000 in fines.
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