Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Greek journalist says media integrity is on trial

This article was published by Al Jazeera.

The trial of Greek journalist Kostas Vaxevanis broke off without conclusion on Tuesday. It is his second trial for breach of privacy law. Vaxevanis’ alleged offence is to have published a list of 2,059 Greeks holding Swiss bank accounts last October.

The list, says Vaxevanis, is the now infamous Lagarde list, named after International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde. As French finance minister in 2010, she sent it to her Greek counterpart, Yiorgos Papakonstantinou, to assist him in tracking down tax evaders.

Vaxevanis now faces a possible sentence of life in prison, but the trial is about more than his personal fate; it is seen by many Greeks as a measurement of the government’s will to silence or encourage investigation of the rich and powerful.

Middle class Greeks have borne the brunt of a $49 billion adjustment of state expenditure, which has allowed Greece to balance its budget. Nonetheless, many feel that the wealthy have not carried their share of the burden. The Lagarde list was a tool handed to the government to enable audits.

Vaxevanis’ lawyers, two of whom are a current and a former opposition member of parliament from the right and the left, respectively, have a major new weapon in their arsenal. Last summer, a parliamentary committee of inquiry voted to indict Papakonstantinou and two former heads of the financial crimes squad, responsible for major audits, for possible criminal negligence in failing to make use of the list. Vaxevanis’ defence is that his publication of the list was instrumental in making that happen. The newfound interest in the list prompted current finance minister Yannis Stournaras to order its prompt analysis, and lends support to Vaxevanis’ view that he acted as a political catalyst.

Whether it provides a legal, to-the-point defence is a different matter, but Vaxevanis has decided that he will put the media on trial in his stead.

He doesn’t mince his words when it comes to Greek journalism. “A big chunk of the press and the broadcast media are constantly held hostage by the political system and the banks,” he told Al Jazeera the night before his retrial for breaching privacy law. Vaxevanis was referring to the mainstream media, large newsgathering organisations with television and radio stations as well as daily newspapers.

“The government gives them state advertising and the banks give them banking ads and loans,” he concludes. “All these people see the media merely as a way to disseminate their view.”

Vaxevanis, who started out in journalism as a cameraman for one of those mainstream networks during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, has now set himself apart.

In April 2012 he launched a fortnightly magazine, Hot Doc, which he says is self-supporting on a circulation of 20,000. It declares that it refuses, on principle, any advertising from banks and the public sector.

“The entire system of corruption is on the list: The economic elite, the political elite, the publishing elite, their offshore companies,” says Vaxevanis. “Silence is the safest course for the political system and those who have something to hide.”

Vaxevanis’ first trial a year ago ended in acquittal, but the prosecutor appealed. Shortly after that acquittal Vaxevanis came home one night to find five men in his small back yard. The police said it was an attempted break-in, but he is convinced that they were government agents.

That event prompted him to move his staff from a bedraggled downtown mall to the basement of his house, which now resembles a fenced-in compound. Visitors enter through a tall steel gate in the garden wall to the sound of three large, hyperactive dogs. The newsroom, painted in Pompeian red and amply proportioned for the magazine’s seven employees, looks out onto a small, empty swimming pool.

Vaxevanis’ journalistic integrity has also come under attack by bloggers and mainstream journalists, who believe he is acting as an agent for Syriza, the radical left-wing opposition party. The timing of his publication of the list, an off-cycle imprint two days before a major austerity bill debate, certainly played into Syriza’s hands. He emerged from his indictment accompanied by a Syriza MP, which also created a certain impression. Vaxevanis insists he is a straight-up-and-down journalist with no party affiliations or secret funding.

Whatever the truth about his influences or lack thereof, Vaxevanis is indisputably adept at planting himself in the middle of the story. “A guilty verdict will make me go to jail to make people understand what is going on in Greece - that there is a question of press freedom in Greece,” he says defiantly.

Vaxevanis sees his own unorthodoxy in the most flattering light: “A year ago we were a bunch of crazies. Now we are a danger to the system.”

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