ATHENS (Reuters) - The Greek journalist put on trial for publishing a list of Swiss bank account holders accused Greece’s political and business elite on Friday of trying to muzzle the press to cover up chronic corruption.
Costas Vaxevanis was acquitted on Thursday of charges of violating personal privacy laws after he published the list of 2,059 names of prominent Greeks including several politicians, shipping magnates, doctors, lawyers, and housewives.
“The main problem in Greece is the people who govern it. It is a closed group, an elite, one part of which is composed of people from all the parties and the second connected directly or indirectly to business people,” he told Reuters in an interview.
He said politicians had first tried to hide the list, and then once he was arrested, Greek media ignored his case even as foreign media broadcast it around the world as an example of Greece’s lack of progress in solving its crisis.
“The list went out. They arrested me. They tried me, and there was nothing on the TV channels,” he said. “It is a huge issue for freedom of press and the Greek channels didn’t show anything.”
Vaxevanis was thrust into the international spotlight after police descended on a friend’s house on Sunday and arrested him a day after he published the list - swift action considering the slow approach Greek authorities seem to take against suspected tax evaders.
And despite the lackluster mainstream coverage at home, blogs, tweets, and discussions on Greek streets showed the case had riveted a population that is increasingly angry at officials’ inability to crack down on tax evasion and force the country’s wealthy elite to share some of the pain of the four-year debt crisis.
Vaxevanis, a 46-year-old father of two, said his failed prosecution was an effort to protect the rich from the same kind of pain that five years of recession has given middle-class Greeks.
“Our politicians go abroad, they even mock our lenders, and people are called to pay the bill once again,” he told Reuters from the office of “Hot Doc”, the magazine he founded six months ago in a half-vacant mall in Athens with a budget of 5,000 euros ($6,500).
The former host of an investigative journalism show called “Pandora’s Box”, Vaxevanis said he was undaunted by the arrest and his next issue would again be on the list, analyzing the connections of the names it holds.
He said an anonymous source gave him the “Lagarde List” - named after International Monetary Fund director Christine Lagarde who handed it to Athens when she was French finance minister in 2010.
Since then three governments have had access to the list but authorities have yet to jail a single big name for tax evasion.
On Friday, a court official said the financial crimes prosecutor would submit a case to parliament so it could start an investigation into former finance ministers George Papaconstantinou and Evangelos Venizelos, who have both said they had a copy.
The Greek government has not commented on the list and routinely refuses to discuss court cases, saying they do not interfere with judicial matters.
While an image of an unshaven Vaxevenis outside the court in a military jacket and loose scarf graced the front pages of the Financial Times and the International Herald Tribune, coverage of his trial was almost completely absent from television news and relegated to the back of most newspapers.
“It is terrible that during the junta people listened to Deutsche Welle and the BBC secretly to find out what happened in Greece,” he said, referring to the 1967-1974 military junta. “And we’re at the same spot. Greeks are watching foreign media to learn about Greece.”
Vaxevanis said he hoped his acquittal would give courage to other media and said other journalists had called him secretly to support him instead of writing stories about his trial.
Britain’s Independent described Vaxevanis as “a Greek hero for our times”. But Greek daily Ta Nea, which had reprinted the list across 10 pages of its Monday edition, devoted five short paragraphs.
Othon Anastasakis, Director of the European Studies Centre at Britain’s Oxford University, said the lack of coverage in Greek media indicated “entangled interests” between business, media and politics.
“It’s highly probable given the fact that this is not being reported as front page news even though it’s very important,” he said. “You do have control of the press now. The press is being entangled with big business and political interests.” ($1 = 0.7730 euros)
Additonal Reporting by Karolina Tagaris, George Georgiopoulous and Harry Papachristou; writing by Michael Winfrey