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Liz Alderman
Monday, November 05, 2012
From Print Edition
 
 

 

ATHENS: The owner and editor of a respected investigative magazine was acquitted Thursday on charges of breaching privacy laws in publishing the names of more than 2,000 Greeks believed to be holding accounts at a bank in Switzerland. The case tested news media freedom in Greece and fuelled a scandal over whether officials here failed to aggressively pursue people suspected of evading taxes.

 

The verdict came four days after a phalanx of police officers arrested the editor, Kostas Vaxevanis, as his magazine, Hot Doc, hit newsstands with the list. Before a packed court, Vaxevanis and his lawyers portrayed him as the target of a politically motivated campaign aimed at damping the public anger at Greek officials.

 

The list that Vaxevanis obtained and published was handed to the Greek authorities two years ago by Christine Lagarde, then the French finance minister and now the head of the International Monetary Fund, to help Greece crack down on tax evasion as it was trying to mend its economy. The list held names of 2,059 Greeks who held accounts at a Geneva branch of the British bank HSBC, which includes a former culture minister, several employees of the Finance Ministry and a number of business leaders. “The court finds the defendant innocent,” Judge Malia Volika said in handing down the decision.

 

Vaxevanis emerged from the packed courtroom to cheers from a large crowd. He hailed the “courage” of the judge, adding: “Journalism for far too long has been a hostage to political forces that don’t allow it to work. This decision sets a precedent that allows my colleagues to do their jobs without political handcuffs.” In his testimony, Vaxevanis accused politicians of sitting on the information to protect powerful interests. He charged that Greece was governed by a small coterie of business elites protected by politicians and by news organizations owned by a handful of influential Greek magnates.

 

“Greek people have known for two years now that there is a list of people who are rich, rightly or wrongly, and they are untouchable,” Vaxevanis told the court. “At the same time, the Greek people are on the other side, they are suffering cuts.” “The political system has been hiding the truth for so long,” he said.

 

At times, the courtroom took on a chaotic atmosphere, with a court-appointed interpreter botching the Greek translation for a British journalist testifying for the defence, and Vaxevanis’s lawyers shouting in protest. Cellphones rang and cigarette smoke wafted through the standing-room-only chamber as the judge, sitting beneath a Greek Orthodox painting of Jesus, banged the table with her hand to restore order. The prosecutor, Iraklis Pasalidis, called no witnesses and sat stone-faced during most of the trial. He submitted a blank witness list to the judge, a move that one lawyer deemed “an analogy of the blank nature of the allegations.”

 

Pasalidis nevertheless argued strongly that Vaxevanis should be found guilty for defaming people without determining their guilt. “These are the culprits, take them and crucify them,” Pasalidis told the court. “Is this a solution to the country’s problems? Cannibalism?”

 

The argument did not prevail.

 

To support his case, Vaxevanis cited one of those named: Lavrentis Lavrentiadis, a Greek oligarch and the former chairman of Proton Bank. Proton received a bailout of $129 million arranged by Evangelos Venizelos, a former finance minister.

 

A financial prosecutor is now examining whether Venizelos and George Papaconstantinou, another former finance minister, told Greek tax authorities not to investigate those on the list. On Thursday, the prosecutor asked Parliament to investigate whether any politicians should face criminal charges for failing to determine whether any of the individuals on the list were guilty of tax evasion.

 

Defence lawyers disputed the charges that Vaxevanis violated privacy laws, noting that none of the people named had filed a complaint over privacy violation.

 

At stake, Vaxevanis’s lawyers argued, was the larger issue of whether the Greek public’s right to know about potential tax evasion that harmed the Greek state overrode concerns about privacy. One of the lawyers, Harris Ikonomopoulos, said the trial could be seen as a warning shot to news organizations considering publishing articles that might embarrass the government — especially as other European nations press Athens to be fiscally responsible and to go harder on tax cheats. As it is, Greek newspapers and television stations have provided scant coverage of the case.

 

Frank Vogl, one of the founders of Transparency International and the author of “Waging War on Corruption,” said the trial would likely tarnish Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’s government. “Internationally, the case will serve as a blunt reminder to Greece’s international official creditors that it is hopeless to accept the pledges of the Greek authorities that they will sharply curb their budget deficit so long as they fail to act meaningfully against corruption and tax evasion,” he said.

 

Papaconstantinou, the ex-finance minister who received the list from Ms Lagarde, said he passed the names to the chief of Greece’s financial crimes unit, who later gave it to Venizelos, the current leader of the Socialists.

 

The tax chief, Ioannis Diotis, said Venizelos had not instructed him to investigate it, a contention Venizelos disputes.

 

The trial also came as several other Greek journalists found themselves in trouble for questioning the government’s handling of delicate political issues. Earlier this week, Spyros Karatzaferis, a broadcast journalist, was arrested on charges of libel after he threatened to reveal what he said were classified documents obtained by hackers involving the bailout agreement between Greece and its so-called Troika of lenders: the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission.

 

He said the hackers broke into the Finance Ministry’s accounting system to obtain e-mails between the Greek authorities and foreign banks. The ministry has not confirmed any such breach, and a prosecutor has opened an investigation.

 

On Monday, two prominent news show presenters were suspended by state-run television after they broadcast a report backing allegations of police torture and suggested that Greece’s public order minister, Nikos Dendias, resign.

 

Dimitris Bounias contributed reporting.