It must have been almost a year ago when Dionysiou Areopagitou Street was teeming with Athenians and visitors as spring escaped from the clutches of a drab and depressing winter to spray paint the capital’s most attractive walkway with color. Reveling in the sunshine and the essence of hope, smiles re-emerged on people’s faces, eyes twinkled and hearts beat in rhythm.
The sun’s appearance seemed to banish the doubts that had been pummeled into Greeks’ minds as a result of the collapse of George Papandreou’s government a few months earlier, the worsening economic situation and the fears about the country’s future in the euro.
It proved to be a false dawn, but on that sun-kissed March day in Athens, there was a hint that normality might return, that a stroll in the shadow of the Parthenon could be carefree. The Attic light streamed into each corner and pore as hundreds of people sauntered around the Acropolis and along a road named after an Athenian judge, Dionysius the Areopagite.
They called him the “flying doctor” due to his sprinting exploits in the 1970s and Prime Minister Antonis Samaras referred to him in the past as an “honest man,” but on Wednesday the only place ex-Thessaloniki Mayor Vassilis Papageorgopoulos was striding to was Diavata Prison, where he is reportedly sharing a cell with nine rather dishonest men.
Papageorgopoulos and two ex-municipal employees were given life sentences for embezzling some 18 million euros from City Hall between 1999 and 2010, when the New Democracy politician served two terms as Thessaloniki mayor. Papageorgopoulos draped an overcoat over his arms as he left for prison to hide his handcuffs from photographers but it’s difficult to imagine what part of his reputation the 65-year-old thought he was protecting after being convicted of systematically plundering taxpayers’ money for over a decade. Nevertheless, Papageorgopoulos denies any wrongdoing and says he will appeal the decision.
While there is undoubtedly a personal story in all this (the tale of how a man who once competed for medals on the track ended up competing for space in a prison exercise yard), Papageorgopoulos’s spectacular fall carries two significant and wider implications for Greece.
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.
Posted in Greece, Greek politics, Media
Tagged Corruption, Greece, Greek media, Hot Doc, Kostas Vaxevanis, Lagarde list, oligarchs, press freedom, structural reforms, tax evasion
Like extras from The Sopranos, some of Greece’s decision makers and opinion makers have been swearing with abandon over the past few days. It is another sign of the decay that has beset Greek public life.
In the big scheme of this crisis, a foul-mouthed exchange between politicians and journalists may seem trivial. In many ways it is, until you consider the failures that led Greece to this precarious point. Key among these weaknesses was the deterioration of public life, propelled by vacuous politics and the growing entanglement of parties, the public sector, the media, banks and big business.