The recent arrest by the Greek government of journalist Costas Vaxevanis, who published in his bi-monthly magazine Hoc Doc a secret list of 2,059 people with Swiss bank accounts, was a shocking infringement of the freedom of speech in a democratic country. He is currently facing a retrial over alleged data privacy breaches barely two weeks after he was acquitted. With Greece’s dire economic situation, the public should have a right to know why these affluent Greek citizens, some of whom are financial and political elites of the nation, were able to get away when the Greek Parliament was just about to debate more austerity measures. As The Globe and Mail has pointed out, the Supreme Court of Canada has said, “Freedom of speech protects listeners and readers, not just writers and speakers.”
The bone of contention is whether these people with the secret Swiss accounts have paid taxes as required by Greek law on money deposited in these accounts. Greece is losing an estimated 19 billion euros a year through tax evasion. The Greek public plus the country’s three biggest creditors – the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission - certainly have the right to know why the Greek government is protecting these tax evaders.
As Mr. Vaxevanis, in defence of himself, said, “Journalism means publishing something that others are trying to hide. Everything else is public relations.” While he might have exaggerated a bit when saying this, he certainly has a point if the so-called “Lagarde List” proves to be valid. According to the journalist who has become an international media star, Greece is governed by a corrupt elite group who covers one another’s backs.
It remains to be seen whether Greece is more interested in chasing tax evaders or silencing the media, but the country has so far failed to force the wealthy to share some of the pain of the debt crisis. If what Mr. Vaxevanis claims is true, then democratic Greece is no different from countries like communist China where public relations is synonymous with propaganda.
Greece’s brand reputation is at stake here, not just in its financial well-being, but in upholding the freedom of speech and in treating ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ equally.