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.