Greece’s arrest of a journalist who published a secret list of 2,000 people with Swiss bank accounts is a breathtaking attack on media freedom from a democratic country. The state should have no interest in suppressing publication of such a list. Any defamation can be dealt with in civil court – as a dispute between individuals.
The public interest in publication of that list is enormous. This week, Greek government officials said they are, in effect, ignoring the list, because the list originated in a theft. That is nonsensical. The list, though it should not be used in court, is a proper basis for investigation, according to a former Greek finance minister. And if that list is sitting on a back shelf, doesn’t the public have a right to probe and provoke, and ask why? As the Supreme Court of Canada has said, freedom of speech protects listeners and readers, not just writers and speakers.
Between the arrest of journalist Costas Vaxevanis on charges of violating Greek privacy laws, the use of a fast-track method of prosecution (his trial would have started two days after his arrest, but for a judge who granted a few days’ delay) and the government declaration that the list can’t be used, the state looks as if it is desperately trying to shield those in the political and financial elites whose names appeared on the list – at the very time Parliament is about to debate more austerity measures. The Athens Bar Association was right when it decried the message that “the democratic institutions of Greece, or what is left of them, are operating exclusively for the protection of the authority system itself.”
This is a time for the widest possible debate. The country is losing an estimated 19 billion euros a year through tax evasion. For two years, its Finance Ministry has had a list of people with the secret Swiss accounts, obtained from France – where the police raided the home of a former HSBC employee who had stolen data. No arrests of tax evaders have resulted in Greece. Having a Swiss account is not necessarily proof of wrongdoing. The issue is whether the account holders paid taxes where required by Greek law on money deposited in these accounts.
“Journalism means publishing something that others are trying to hide,” Mr. Vaxevanis said. “Everything else is public relations.” It’s a definition that democracies usually try to keep in mind. Government is not always transparent or accountable – not just in Greece. Mr. Vaxevanis is not the issue; he’s just the one with the flashlight, poking into dark corners.