Greek journalist Kostas Vaxevanis began trial on Thursday for publishing a list of Greek overseas investors who, he argues, should have been investigated for tax evasion.
Vaxevanis came across the names of 2,059 Greek citizens who held accounts with an HSBC bank in Switzerland through an anonymous source, he said. He then published the so-called Lagarde List in the weekly magazine he edits, Hot Doc. Greek daily newspaper Ta Nea followed suit, devoting 10 pages to the document.
French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde originally gave the list to Greek Finance Minister Giorgios Papakonstantinou two years ago. The Greek citizens named therein have not necessarily done anything illegal. But given Greece’s high levels of corruption and unsettled debt, it was expected that the government would investigate whether some of those listed might be perpetrators of tax evasion.
Greece has so far neglected to investigate the account holders, claiming that the list -- originally leaked from an HSBC employee -- had been obtained illegally.
That excuse is unlikely to go over well in a country where tax evasion prosecution has been lackadaisical at best. According to Reuters, Greece is sorely in need of unpaid tax revenues amounting to about $77.8 billion, which, if paid, could cover a sixth of the national debt.
This adds to a growing sense among middle class and poor Greek citizens that the government has failed to address the criminal activity at the root of Greece’s crippling debt problem. Corruption, it seems, is as rife as ever -- especially in this case, since the people on the Lagarde List include several government officials and highly influential businesspeople.
Vaxevanis argues that since the government failed to do its job, it was up to the media to call its bluff.
“If anyone is accountable before the law, then it is those ministers who hid the list, lost it and then said it didn’t exist,” he said, according to the Daily Mail.
“I only did my job. I am a journalist, and I did my job.”
Others are coming to his defense. At the trial on Thursday, a number of press professionals rallied to support Vaxevanis.
Dimitris Trimis, who heads up the Athens union of journalists, told the court that Vaxevanis had done nothing wrong, according to Agence France-Presse.
"I would have done the same thing," he said. "A bank account is not personal data; we live in an era of transparency.”
The legality of Vaxevanis actions remains unclear. He is being charged with breach of privacy and could face up to three years behind bars if he is convicted. But none of the people whose names were on the Lagarde List have personally testified against the journalist. With no private plaintiffs in this case so far, the state may be hard-pressed to make the charges stick.
Vaxevanis argues that the charges are not based on facts.
“There isn't the slightest bit of evidence to support the charges," he said to Reuters. "Obviously there are political motives. You see most of the names on the list are friends of the political system."
International analysts are already calling for Vaxevanis’ release, saying a conviction would be a clear indication that Greek officials would rather pass the buck than deal with the economy’s biggest problems: a broken tax system, shoddy public investment and endemic corruption.
“I wonder if Greek justice will show that the law safeguards the public interest and freedom of speech,” wrote Vanevaxis this weekend, according to AFP.
“In journalism, you must do what you think is right without worrying about the consequences.”