Tag Archives: tax evasion

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.

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News or ad break?

“News is something somebody doesn’t want printed, everything else is advertising,” one of the USA’s most famous publisher’s, William Randolph Hearst, said. The incompetence and wilful neglect that Greek authorities have shown over the last few years with regards to investigating a list of Greeks with large amounts deposited in the Geneva branch of HSBC suggests that it contains information some people don’t want to be printed.

Journalist Costas Vaxevanis and his Hot Doc magazine have decided to test this theory by publishing the list of names supposedly on the CD given to the Greek government by French officials in 2010. That the details provided on the CD were not investigated for more than two years is a scandal. It is compounded by the fact that two finance ministers – Giorgos Papaconstantinou and Evangelos Venizelos – failed to ensure that the data was utilized and that two heads of the financial crimes squad (SDOE) – Yiannis Diotis and Yiannis Kapeleris – failed to ascertain whether there were any tax evaders on the list.

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For sweet dreams, evasion and avoidance

I wrote an article earlier this week criticizing Christine Lagarde’s comments about Greece. My main objections were that she helped perpetuate the stereotype of all Greeks evading taxes, overlooked the International Monetary Fund’s role in the buildup to the Greek crisis and the way it was handled since 2009, and her belittling of the difficulties that some Greeks are facing due to the deteriorating situation in their country.

I have received a number of interesting responses, the vast majority of which have focused on the issue of tax evasion. Even the most blinkered nationalist or dogmatic ideologue could not fail to see that tax evasion has played a part in the Greek crisis. It undermined public finances and fed the anomie that pervaded much of public life over the past few decades.

However, I have noticed that some people consistently reject all attempts to place tax evasion within any context. It is difficult for them to accept that there are other, perhaps more important, factors — such as an uncompetitive and unproductive economy, an inability to export, a reliance on imports, a flawed euro entry and the selfishness and incompetence of the country’s political class and many of its people — which have led to Greece’s downfall.

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The big payback

Christine Lagarde may not have wanted to imply that Greeks were suffering payback for years of living large and that the world should have more sympathy for people in Niger because they’re much worse off and at least they pay their taxes, but that’s certainly what the International Monetary Fund managing director appeared to suggest in her interview with The Guardian on Saturday.

A few hours later, and after she had been condemned by Greek leaders and thousands of people posting on her Facebook page, Lagarde clarified her comments: she was “very sympathetic to the Greek people and the challenges they are facing.” She added that a comment regarding widespread tax evasion in Greece was a reference mainly to “the most privileged.” By then, though, the damage had been done.

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