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October 27, 2012
October 27, 2012

Defending the right to publish

Author: Yannis Boyopoulos Translator: Anna Papoutsi
Source: The Press Project  Category: On the crisis
This article is also available in: esel
Defending the right to publish

I had just finished the below article when I found out about the arrest warrant against Kostas Vaxevanis[1], the publisher of Hot Doc magazine. This move is so offensive to the freedom of the press that the only thing I would change is the characterisations. In lay terms, I would start the slam about the rush of power to go after the messenger instead of the perpetrator. I am not changing anything. Even though the conclusion might now seem naïve, I still believe that such a charge would never stand in court. Otherwise, it’s time for me to change professions…

It was not only those who were included in the Lagarde (or HSBC or Falciani) list and saw their names “hanging”[2] that were bothered by the publication in the Hot Doc magazine. Citizens that consider the personal data sacred also in good intentions disapproved of it. All those who confuse journalism with justice protested by saying that “since justice has not decided yet the names should not be published”. Unsolicited defenders of… quality complained saying that “it is not a good report because it does not contain the amounts of the depositions and it has not been juxtaposed against each person’s income declaration”. But the most noisy are those who place highly the free movement of capital in their value scale.

Beginning from these last ones, let us remind them that exporting wealth is a relatively recent addition to most countries’ laws. In Greece, it was not before 1987 that we started lifting the severe restrictions on exporting currency. Until then, even for large firms with international orientation and everyday transactions, the necessary supporting documents had to be presented. Free movement of capital, a financial practice, a globalisation convention, is neither a doctrine nor an icon. Especially, when freedom is used as a smokescreen for crimes.

Whether a revelation is complete or not does not cancel its value. A good compass, when in doubt about a report of investigative journalism, is to compare it with the Watergate scandal that led Nixon to resign, because it is considered as a leading example of the sort. Comparing, of course, only the methodology. The argument of ‘non-completion’ automatically collapses. Nixon would have been spared history’s stigmatisation was it not for Washington Post publishing that first report, that went almost unnoticed, with scant evidence and insisting on finding more evidence.

“Publishing is the heart of justice” wrote I. Mayer, grecophile and architect of the Greek press. But soul and mind are two different things. We do not want a judge adjudicating with his thymic and, because he spilled his coffee just before entering the court room, condemning a small-time thief to life in prison. We do not allow a journalist to free a lifer, no matter how much he might want to. The so called fourth authority(journalism) is not a real authority but a safety valve to the other three. Just like the soul, that in the popular terminology is the base of conscience, but is ignored by neurophysiology, journalism is not described in the Constitution.

I would pester less my keyboard and not wear out your eyes by writing my “one and only opinion” on personal data. But I cannot but point out the confusion that has prevailed. Sensitive personal data is different than personal data in general. Confusing the two comes either from ignorance or expediency. The former are totally protected. For the latter, the 2472/1997 law foresees exemption in case of public interest. Publishing a name connected to a bank is of minor significance. If it mattered, the credit card bill that we receive in our mail boxes would be without a sender, like a sex-shop parcel, so that the neighbours do not suspect our bank… perversions. The list did not include addresses, detailed accounts not even amounts. Who would be bothered by a similar list of 2059 clients of the National Bank? Probably no one.

Public interest is the publication of the list; because the official Greek state had it for two years and did not use it; because it was hidden in drawers of ministers and emasculated magistrates; because excuses for tolerating tax evasion have flooded like wastewater from clogged sewer; because all this disgrace is happening simultaneously with the greatest ever bleeding of the simple tax-payer.

Yes, I will also remark that not all of these depositions are illegitimate. If the amounts are justified by their incomes they have nothing to worry about. We should clarify however that the HSBC (Falciani or Lagarde[3]) list concerns only depositions prior to 2008. Who sent their money out of Greece before the crisis?

(a) Those who needed it there because of their profession or cosmopolitanism

(b) Those who had abundant illegal un-taxed money and were looking for a safe heaven. Ah and of course, Mrs Maria, housekeeper…

Yes, not everyone in the list is illegitimate, but maybe half of them are. Because, unlike the large flow of capital abroad that started after the crisis broke out, until 2008 the euro was safe, the Euro-zone blooming and the banks were secure. But the Greek and European banks had a big disadvantage. They could reveal the tax-evader with a simple court order. Switzerland has a complete secrecy law. Breaking the Swiss secrecy law happened after the American crisis of 2008 and the US pressure for compliance with minimum rules of judicial facilitation. Switzerland, the following year, was forced to change the relevant laws and sign contracts to exit the famous OECD ‘grey list’ regarding tax heavens. Obviously, they are not advertising it.

One of those listed excused himself by the fact that the data on the list are old and some are believing stories about the money having been moved out of Switzerland and there is no way of tracing it. No matter how old the evidence is they can be useful. And whether it has travelled to Mars is no concern for a judge or a tax-agent. Let the fines and penalties be set and let those liable look for a spaceship in order to stay out of prison.

We put emphasis on Lagarde list not because it revealed the names of tax-evaders but because it uncovered the complicity of two legislatures and the state mechanism to cover up the tax-evaders. As a list, it is short. There is the list of Lichtenstein account holders, known for two years now, from which we have not seen any results. There is the list with London real estate owners whose results we have not seen either. And more than anything there is the list with those 54,000 who moved their money abroad during the crisis, in which the tax-evaders are proportionately less but thousands in real numbers and for whom we hear crazy things like that “the tax authorities will call them to submit additional tax forms”, instead of allocating automatically the equivalent tax and the fines.

Fighting tax-evasion is a technical and a political issue. The political management is unfortunately a miserable compromise between the parties’ “clientele” and public revenue. However, in the four abovementioned lists the only thing needed is a very simple technical handling by the tax authorities. Two university students and an accountant are enough to write the software that can compare the known declared assets to the known undeclared assets.

Following all this, if I were Kostas Vaxevanis and had the list I would not be wondering whether to publish it. I would think about the editorial and the cover photo (bad choice, by the way). And at some point I would waste 10 minutes on the phone with a lawyer in order to make sure that the possibilities of a court conviction on “personal data” violation or any other fabrication are scant.

P.S. At the same time, the PressProject is publishing the most recent draft of the Third Memorandum. It is a very important text that all concerned citizens must read. I hope that this time also the ministers read it[4]… The document is confidential but it was leaked. Someone could claim that publishing it impedes the negotiations (the what?), that it is illegal or whatever. Alas if for every document we asked for permission to publish by real or voluntary prosecutors…

 

[1] Investigative journalist and publisher who was arrested and is accused of breaking the privacy law because he published a list containing the names of 2,000 account holders in HSBC bank leaked by Falciani.

[2] In Greece, the newspapers are hanging in kiosks by pegs

[3] In Greece this list ended-up being called Lagarde list because it was handed over by Christine Lagarde to the then Finance Minister

[4] The previous Minister of Public Order, Michalis Chrisohoidis, has admitted that he never read the 1st Memorandum but he voted for it anyway.

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