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Show-stopper: Greek journalists go on strike, alleging state censorship

Published time: October 30, 2012 20:24
Edited time: October 31, 2012 03:02
Kostas Vaxevanis (L) escorted by plain-clothed police during his arrest on October 28. (AFP Photo/Eurokinissi/Georgia Panagopoulou)

Kostas Vaxevanis (L) escorted by plain-clothed police during his arrest on October 28. (AFP Photo/Eurokinissi/Georgia Panagopoulou)

The embattled Greek government faces another strike – this time from journalists. Greek state television staff have begun work stoppages to protest what they say is increasing government censorship.

­The country has been shaken by two separate scandals in quick succession, in which authorities were seen as being heavy-handed and using selective justice to punish political dissenters.

One concerns presenters Marilena Katsimi and Costas Arvanitis, who were suspended “indefinitely” from a popular current affairs morning show carried by national broadcaster ERT.  The suspension came after they criticized right-wing interior minister, Nikos Dendias.

ERT workers staged a walkout during scheduled programming on Tuesday morning and said they will organize 24-hour rolling strikes until Katsimi and Arvanitis are reinstated.

Marilena Katsimi and Costas Arvanitis (Image from greekhermes.files.wordpress.com)
Marilena Katsimi and Costas Arvanitis (Image from greekhermes.files.wordpress.com)

Dendias was recently forced into an embarrassing turnaround over accusations of police torture of left-wing anti-fascist protesters, who were detained during a motorcade protest against racism a month ago. Several days later, a report, supplemented with photos, appeared in the UK’s Guardian newspaper claiming that the demonstrators were beaten, spat on and denied water while in custody.

The interior minister initially branded the accusations as false, and said the government should sue the newspaper for "defaming Greek democracy”. But later, a medical evaluation confirmed that the activists may in fact have been abused.

This became the subject of the following exchange on Katsimi and Arvantis’ show:

Mr. Arvanitis: Is Dendias going to resign now?
M. Katsimi: I do not think so.
Mr. Arvanitis: And now what? Will he say he is sorry?
M. Katsimi: I do not know …

Within an hour of the broadcast, Aimilios Liatsos, ERT's head of news, demanded to see the transcript, and then replaced the presenters without even talking to them.

Liatsos released a statement saying Katsimi and Arvanitis “violated basic journalistic ethics” with “unacceptable insinuations” that “did not give the minister a chance to respond”.

Katsimi said that the explanation amounts to an attempt to muzzle free discussion of politics, and says amidst economic turmoil, the government is trying to bring the media to heel.

“We have been critical of ministers in the past from all parties, and there have been complaints to the management before but this is new,” she told the Guardian.

"Everywhere in media people are being fired, but at ERT they are hiring. The government want people who agree with their position and they want to hire their friends."

Nikos Dendias has now told parliament that the complaints of activist detainees will be investigated.

Immigrants to Greece and Greek citizens hold anti-nazi banners at Piraeus, southwest Athens, on September. Some journalists complain that abuses against them were not covered thoroughly in the Greek media.(AFP Photo / Angelos Tzortzinis)
Immigrants to Greece and Greek citizens hold anti-nazi banners at Piraeus, southwest Athens, on September. Some journalists complain that abuses against them were not covered thoroughly in the Greek media.(AFP Photo / Angelos Tzortzinis)

Slow justice, quick justice

The second high-profile incident centers on Kostas Vaxevanis, an investigative journalist arrested on Sunday, facing up to a year in prison and a €30,000 fine, for breaking data privacy laws.

His crime, publishing the notorious “Lagarde list” containing the names of 2,059 Greek account holders in HSBC’s Swiss bank.

The list, initially stolen by a bank employee in 2007, has been used by tax authorities throughout Europe to identify tax evaders (who often use foreign accounts to avoid detection) and was passed onto then finance minister George Papaconstantinou in 2010.

In the eyes of many in Greeks, what followed defies belief.

Papaconstantinou claims that he passed the disk on to an assistant, whom he refuses to name, who then may have given it to a different government agency. The agency then returned it to Papaconstantinou’s successor, who once again appeared to have mislaid it. When parliament formed a committee to decide what to do with the list last year, to weary public ridicule no one in the government could find it for several weeks, until the Prime Minister remembered that he had a copy.

Not a single person on the list was questioned and no cases were opened. Now, the contents of the list are considered to be moot, as financial insiders claim that all the leaked accounts were closed, or renamed.

But when Vaxevanis finally published the list in his Hot Docs magazine last week – naming politicians, shipping tycoons and celebrities but not their account numbers or the amount of money they hold – he was arrested immediately, being escorted out of a radio station in the middle of a program

"Instead of focusing on investigating the validity of the so-called Lagarde list … they focus on the prosecution of a journalist who, in doing his job, dared to publicly reveal information that allegedly is included in the list," said the Athens Bar Association, the union of top Greek lawyers, in a specially-released statement.

The journalist has also been supported by Reporters without Borders and the OSCE.

Vaxevanis wrote a column in his defense in the Guardian, saying that he believed that revealing the document was in the public interest after a sustained period of government inaction, and that the list “has poisoned political life in Greece, with political and financial blackmail taking place in the dark rooms of corrupt power”. According to Greek legislation, journalists can be exempted from privacy laws if it can be proved that their revelations served the public.

Vaxevanis criticized the local media, noting that Greek journalists often had to go to foreign publications to get their views heard. He also lashed out at the political and the judicial establishment, ending his column with the proclamation that “justice is in thrall to politics”.

Vaxevanis has two days to prepare a defense against the charges ahead of the next court hearing on November 1.

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