A strange kind of freedom

The acquittal of journalist Costas Vaxevanis has been hailed by some as a victory for press freedom in Greece. It is certainly a success for Vaxevanis and the Hot Doc magazine he edits, and goes some way to vindicating his decision to publish a list of some 2,000 Greeks holding accounts at the Geneva branch of HSBC. Whether it strikes a decisive blow in favor of press freedom in Greece is open to debate.

The unusual amount of international attention this story has received and the prominence that some media around the world have afforded it has led to dust being kicked over the nuances involved. Context has suffered as much of the coverage fed the understandable human urge to look for heroes and villains. Goodness knows we have been short of heroes in Greece. Goodness knows we have had more than our fair share of villains.

However, the reality is that this story is not about a crusading journalist who blew a corruption scandal wide open. It is more complex than that. It is the story of an incompetent and, to a large extent, compromised system that was unable or unwilling to carry out one of the many basic functions it often fails to fulfill: to check if its citizens were cheating. Insult was added to injury when officials produced pathetic excuses to explain their failures. Addressing this problem will take much more than a magazine article. It requires a prolonged, consistent effort from the media and citizens to ensure failing institutions finally fulfill their designated role. If the media instead attempts to fill the position of these institutions, rather than targeting the vested interests that prevent their proper functioning, the situation will only be made worse.

“Greece is run by a closed oligarchy of businessmen, politicians and controlled media groups. My publication of the list marked a confrontation, an extreme confrontation,” Vaxevanis told one of the many foreign publications that have sought his opinion over the last few days.

It is difficult to see exactly what confrontation, other than this week’s bizarre court case, the publication of the names provoked. The two ministers who failed to oversee a thorough probe into the list – Giorgos Papaconstantinou and Evangelos Venizelos – have already been questioned by lawmakers about their actions. Following a decision by prosecutor Grigoris Peponis on Thursday, Papaconstantinou and Venizelos could face a parliamentary probe. Similarly, the two heads of the Financial Crimes Squad (SDOE) that failed to make the most of the list – Yiannis Diotis and Yiannis Kapeleris – have also been questioned.

In fact, a few weeks before the list’s publication, Venizelos had already been embarrassed into fishing the memory stick containing the list out of his drawer and handing it to Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’s office, which turned it straight over to prosecutors. Venizelos attempted to explain the inexplicable on national television and his leadership of PASOK was subsequently seriously undermined.

We should be clear that Hot Doc has published information that the justice system is already investigating. While its action could be seen as having highlighted the state’s failures and the apparent coziness between the political establishment and its friends in the private sector, it has not moved the story on. Maybe Vaxevanis has this in mind for future publications.

For now, the publishing of the list has revived the mistaken impression that Greece could solve its fiscal problems overnight by clamping down on tax evaders. Tackling tax evasion will help but it won’t be a panacea for Greece’s economy. It needs methodical, time-consuming work. As scandalous as Greek authorities’ failure to investigate the list is, it is worth keeping in mind that the UK also obtained the details of 6,000 Britons with Swiss Bank accounts from the French government in 2010. Unlike their Greek counterparts, British officials have been investigating the contents of their Lagarde list. According to reports, some 600 people are being probed but so far the British government’s efforts have led to the grand total of one person being successfully prosecuted, although private settlements are being reached with other suspects.

The emotions stirred by events over the last few weeks, should not make us lose sight of the fact that Greece’s problems are deeply structural. We should not be carried away by the fact that some of the international media has adopted the cause against the political-business-media elite. There is no doubt that this is one of the serious problems that needs to be addressed but we shouldn’t forget that for much of this crisis, a large part of the same international media has been content with portraying tax evasion and corruption as a national sport played by all Greeks, not just the rich and powerful.

Vaxevanis successfully argued that publishing the raw data from the Lagarde List is in the public interest because some of it suggests that well-connected people were being protected by authorities. Perhaps, though, there is an even greater public service to be performed by the media in following up on several hundred arrests for major tax evasion over the last year – a first for Greece. It could also help by pressing the Finance Ministry and SDOE over their efforts to contact and reach settlements with several thousand Greeks from a list of 54,000 who are suspected of transferring money abroad between 2009 and 2011 without paying the relevant tax.

This would have more than the symbolic value of the publication of a list, which admittedly alerts the public, attracts international media attention and generates momentum. But the main concern should be what happens when all this focus dies down.

The speed and decisiveness with which the Greek justice system has acted in the Vaxevanis case raises serious questions about its impartiality. But in a country where the state has tended to act on a whim rather than to a prescribed set of transparent rules, this is not a new development.

It is the latter (the proper functioning of the Greek state) that should be the main point of concern. For this, Greece needs not only a free media but an inquisitive one as well.

Sadly, much of the media in Greece has either been part of the web of entangled interests that damaged the country or has lacked the quality and clarity needed to have a positive impact. The changing way news was produced and consumed meant that objectivity became a victim. The ever-closer relationship between the media and business interests was damaging. The growing need for governments to control coverage and the emergence of the embedded journalist hurt reporters’ credibility. It has been a sad demise but it is important to stress that the same decline has been experienced in many countries, not just Greece.

Take for instance a comment on Thursday by British journalist Kirsty Walker, formerly of the Daily Mail and Express, and compare it to what Vaxevanis told the international media: “Britain has become a place where the rich, famous and well-connected can take the newspapers to court for writing the truth.”

Vaxevanis’s trial came in the same week that the two presenters – Marilena Katsimi and Costas Arvanitis – of a morning news show on state-run ERT TV were suspended over comments regarding Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias’s handling of allegations that anti-fascist protesters were beaten by police. Again, though, editorial intervention – whether it is justified or not – is not an exclusively Greek phenomenon. The BBC, for instance, is currently under investigation after an editor apparently blocked its flagship new program, Newsnight, from airing allegations about one of its former employees, Jimmy Savile, abusing children.

Greece has paid for the absence of a questioning media more than others because its lack of independence and objectivity meant it largely ignored the warning signs of the crisis and contributed to the political, economic and social unravelling. The mainstream media did uncover some scandals, such as Siemens’s bribes, the alleged corruption of former Defense Minister Akis Tsochatzopoulos and the land swap involving the Vatopedi Monastery. This was never enough, though. More attention should have been paid to things like political graft, the role of banks, cartels and corruption in the private sector.

Like the political system, the mainstream media is struggling to adapt to the new circumstances created by the crisis. Again, though, it is important to provide context.

Although questions should be asked about the role of the mainstream media in Greece, there is a plurality of voices here that is difficult to find in other European countries. It is worth pointing out that SYRIZA, the Communist Party and even Golden Dawn have their own publications and in some cases have been involved in TV and radio stations. Also, over the last few years, there’s been a proliferation of news websites and blogs that have become the main source of information for an increasing number of Greeks. Again, it is unlikely that you would find the same type of caustic commentary and non-mainstream reporting in many other European countries.

There are also encouraging signs that fresher voices, offering more impartial insight are emerging. The success of the volunteer, citizen-journalism-driven Radio Bubble and the publication next week of a newspaper put together by unemployed workers from Eleftherotypia are good for the health of the Greek media. Replacing the often murky ties of the past with a more transparent form of reporting, and swapping subjectivity for objectivity will give the media a frontline place in trying to reshape the country as it tries to emerge from the crisis.

That’s why it is so peculiar that it went relatively unnoticed in the international media, famed for its balance, that SYRIZA took such a prominent role in supporting Vaxevanis. Its MPs flanked him as he emerged from his first court appearance and one of its deputies, Zoe Constantopoulou, appeared as a defense witness during his trial. If this case had been a few years ago and, for instance, a New Democracy government was in power, with Vaxevanis being supported by PASOK MPs, most observers would have wondered whether the Socialists were seeking to make political gains and put the government under pressure. While Vaxevanis is free to call on whatever support he wants and SYRIZA can back the causes it likes, in these politically-charged times their apparent closeness cannot be seen in purely neutral terms. In fact, it should cause us to think again about what we truly mean when we talk about press freedom.

If the goal is to swap one kind of political affiliation for another, one type of sponsor for another and one form of mutual back-scratching for another, then it is a very strange concept of freedom that we are supposedly fighting for.

Nick Malkoutzis

10 responses to “A strange kind of freedom

  1. I have a few questions before I give my take on this:

    1. Did Vaxevanis indeed start his career as a journalist for Rizospastis, a newspaper which is the official instrument of ultra-left, Stalinist type Moscow related politics in Greece?

    2. And isn’t Vaxevanis the boyfriend of Popi Tsapanithou a TV presenter for SKAI TV (ideologically similar to Kathemerini and New Democracy), who practically had a meltdown on live show about the significance of such list to her reputation? Didn’t in fact Tsapanithou forgetting that she is a journalist and therefore a moderator on TV shows, undertake a scathing attack on her guests that day and thus exhibiting a wholly biased opinion on the subject at the expense and using the resources of her employer?

    And what are we to make of a whole class of journalists in Greece, who have become VIPs holding a constant and theatrical microphone, aggrandizing their own brand and persona to such extent that when the organizations which employ them eventually say “enough is enough” , such superstars (whose image is exclusively made by using other people’s money except their own) find a smooth transition to a political career because of their brand recognition and political discourse practiced on someone else’s dime?

  2. It is nearly impossible to find in Greece a media outlet, old or new, that does investigating reporting in an ideological-free matter (at least pretend it does). Any supposedly relieving news are usually plastered on the front page with huge bolded dramatic toned letters, and the inside reporting reads more like an opinion piece that original reporting…. now that I think about it most news tv or print reads like opinion pieces. The road is long for journalism in Greece….

  3. Out of curiousity, is it known what Mr. Vaxevanis’ position was when Christine Lagarde chastized not too long ago those Greeks who were dodging taxes? Does it put her then comments into a different light when considering that, at the time she made those comments, she had already witnessed a year and a half going by without any action on the part of Greek authorities on the list she had passed on to them?

  4. Nick, you are one of the top journalists in Greece for the quality and balance of your analysis and research. I always forward your articles (Kathimerini & blog) to people and news agencies outside.

    At the same time you are not a private person expressing your opinion but editor at one of Greece’s oldest and grandest newspapers – and the only greek paper with an English language edition, which means that the world and the international press daily clock on to your site. A double-edged sword, that.

    Two weeks ago you cited The Telegraph in London for undertaking the investigation that led to the exposure of the parliamentary abuse of expenses. This was an enormous coup for The Telegraph – and precisely because it is a conservative paper the exposure was even more damning.

    My question is: why isn’t a comparable, historical paper of record like Kathimerini doing its own investigation concerning 1) cartels and 2) the cosy interlinks between business and parliament? It has become sickening over the last 4 years to continuously read veiled references to ‘special interests’ in K’s articles and editorials, without any progress on what these are. It is no mystery. The greek population is smaller than greater London and every greek adult has personal knowledge (and can name names) of at least one abuse. But 3, 4 years later, it is no longer the little abuses that matter (they are just symptoms) – but the abusive system at the top that has so corrupted and distorted our institutions, and which is now exposed to the world, making Greece a laughing stock and byword.
    By continuing to protect this status quo, Kathimerini and other papers thoroughly degrade themselves.

    As you say, this happens everywhere now. Is that a good enough excuse? If I used that excuse in my own profession I would end up in court, probably bankrupt and certainly in jail. Are we simply to conclude that journalists are no longer professional and have no honour?

    Investigations cost money, but I don’t believe that is the issue at stake. When will Kathimerini decide that the time has run out for sitting on the fence? Or finally decide that the future for greeks, and of Greece, is vitally important?

    To play a role in clearing the Augean stables would be the best investment Kathimerini ever made.

    I wonder if Eleni Vlachou would have let an honourable paper like Eleftherotypia possibly beat her to such a goal.

    • Eleni, you make some excellent points. I’m not sure I can respond to all of them comprehensively but I will try to give an overview.
      I hope you will excuse me if I don’t go into detail about Greek Kathimerini. I don’t have any input into or specific knowledge of the editorial process there. What I would say, though, is that Kathimerini has in the past been instrumental in uncovering a number of corruption scandals of the type you mention – the milk cartel and the Tsochatzopoulos case, for instance. Tassos Teloglou, the investigative journalist that should be a benchmark for all colleagues, has been instrumental in this respect and he continues to contribute valuable material.
      Clearly, though, the situation demands even more light be shed on the sins of the past. Unfortunately, you have to marry this with the real and debilitating crisis that has hit the Greek media. Kathimerini is no exception. Staff numbers are down considerably and wages have been cut. Meanwhile, the changing way that news is consumed means that resources are spread more thinly than they have ever been as publications try to cover online and print demands.
      To give you an example from the English edition, two years ago we had our weekly publication Athens Plus, which allowed us to do more in-depth reports. Not what I would call investigative journalism, by any stretch of the imagination but we were certainly able to get much deeper into issues. In December 2010, Athens Plus was closed down. We know have less than a third of the staff covering both the daily print edition and the online service, which we update from 9 a.m. until midnight. This means resources are fully stretched. It is a similar story wherever you look in the Greek media.
      Another thing to bear in mind is the level of pay in the sector. Earning less shouldn’t mean you do your job less competently but the reality of the situation is that an increasing number of journalists are taking on extra jobs to make up for the income they have lost over the last few years. This is not conducive to producing detailed investigations. In my brief time in journalism in the UK, I didn’t know of a single colleague doing another job to get by. Here, I hardly know of anyone who doesn’t have something going on on the side to supplement his/her income.
      Without the resources and the manpower, the quality suffers.
      You are right to demand much more and I think that is something that Kathimerini and others who want to play a part in helping the country get over its past weaknesses and move on will have to contemplate and act on. Don’t forget that the media is not seperate from the rest of the system that is currently crumbling. It must find its own distinct place and I think this may take some time as we see some outlets go out of business, others open and others reasses their role.
      That is what’s so infuriating about the Vaxevanis case. Hot Doc was launched as a magazine built on investigative journalism. I think that if you want to do that and nothing else, then you can focus your resources on it. Sadly, an opportunity was missed in the case of the Lagarde list.

  5. “And what are we to make of a whole class of journalists in Greece, who have become VIPs holding a constant and theatrical microphone, aggrandizing their own brand and persona to such extent that when the organizations which employ them eventually say ‘enough is enough’.” Really? Greek newspaper and other media owners have been promoting themselves aggressively for years. This is nothing new. But the new wave of citizen media will certainly be interesting to observe and read.

  6. > The emotions stirred by events over the last few weeks, should not make
    > us lose sight of the fact that Greece’s problems are deeply structural.
    Smoke bomb?
    Isn’t Vaxevanis highlighting just one of the main structural problems, tax evasion and the problems of the Greek society to border it?
    And as a fish rots from the head, how tax evasion should be bordered if it is not getting tackled especially for the rich and influential people?

  7. When I arrived in Greece in 2004, the new PM Kostas Karamanlis continuously spoke of transparency. It littered every speech he made. He wanted more transparency, promised more transparency, delivered even less transparency.
    The publishing of this list may not be out of the top drawer of investigative journalism. Perhaps it has not moved the game forward.
    But it is transparency – and that is indeed a step forward for the majority of the Greek people who are suffering a lot in these difficult times while the wealthy hide their money are talk down to them earnestly about tightening the belt,

    • My concern is that you go from no transparency to those making information public for their own purposes. It’s significant to note that the list was in the judiciary’s hand a few weeks before Vaxevanis published and that a probe had been launched. I have a feeling that in a number of other countries, he would be convicted of interfering with the judicial process.

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