By Will Vassilopoulos (AFP) – Nov 1, 2012
ATHENS — A Greek court on Thursday acquitted a journalist of breach of privacy in publishing a list of 2,000 Greeks allegedly with Swiss bank accounts, in a case that has exposed the government to charges of a cover-up.
Costas Vaxevanis, a 46-year-old veteran television journalist who now publishes a magazine, has insisted he was doing his job and accused ministers responsible for vetting the list for possible tax evasion of doing nothing for two years.
Vaxevanis, who was arrested on Sunday, was charged with breach of privacy and had faced a maximum three-year prison sentence if convicted.
Calling for his conviction, the prosecutor said: "You have publicly ridiculed a series of people, you have delivered these people to a society that is thirsty for blood."
"The solution to the problems that the country is facing is not cannibalism," added the prosecutor.
But after 12-hour hearing, the court acquitted Vaxevanis.
Judge Malia Volika declared the "innocence" of Vaxevanis, and rejected all objections from the prosecution.
The ruling was met with applause, while Vaxevanis told Volika: "I thank you very much Madam Judge."
While leaving the courtroom, the journalist said: "I did what all journalists would have done."
During the trial, Vaxevanis stressed that he was obliged to publish the list.
"It is my job to publish this list, even if my father were on the list, I would have published it," he said.
Among those on the list are prominent businessmen, shipowners, lawyers, doctors, journalists and a former minister, as well as companies, housewives and students although no deposit sums were published.
Several media workers also testified on behalf of Vaxevanis, including the head of the International Federation of Journalists, Jim Bumelha, who called the trial an "absurd farce".
"Colleagues from all over the world will be keeping an eye on this. If something happens to Costas, we will gather all of the forces that we have got, wherever we are, to campaign for his release," he told reporters ahead of the verdict.
The head of the Athens union of journalists, Dimitris Trimis, also took the stand.
"I would have done the same thing," Trimis told the court, according to excerpts posted on a blog run by Vaxevanis.
"A bank account is not personal data, we live in an era of transparency," Trimis said.
A radical leftist lawmaker whose father is on the journalist's legal team denounced the case as a "blow to democracy".
Amnesty International's deputy programme director for Europe and Central Asia, Marek Marczynski, said ahead of the ruling that it was "deeply troubling" that Vaxevanis is facing charges "for disclosing information in the public interest".
"This step increases the risk that other journalists will censor themselves and refrain from legitimate criticism of the government to avoid prosecution," he said.
-- State of hypocrisy --
Vaxevanis has accused the Greek state of hypocrisy and says the justice system is bowing to a corrupt political system.
"Our politicians declare themselves to be democrats. I see no evidence of this," he wrote in Britain's The Times newspaper on Thursday.
"I wonder if Greek justice will show that the law safeguards the public interest and freedom of speech... in journalism you must do what you think is right without worrying about the consequences," he wrote.
The journalist has also accused Greek media of burying the story.
Vaxevanis' "Hot Doc" magazine on Saturday published the names of more than 2,000 Greeks, allegedly from a controversial list of HSBC account holders that was originally leaked by a bank employee and passed to Greece in 2010 by France's then finance minister Christine Lagarde, who is now IMF chief.
Greek authorities took no action given that the list was considered stolen data that could not be used against potential tax evaders.
When the case resurfaced last month, it took several days for officials to even locate a copy of the so-called "Lagarde List".
The data has been the subject of intense discussion, with the government facing calls to use it to crack down on potential tax cheats as Greece grapples with a massive debt crisis.
On Thursday, a special economic prosecutor asked parliament to investigate whether previous finance ministers could be faulted for failing to take action on the list, media reports said.
Evangelos Venizelos, the leader of the socialist Pasok party and a former finance minister, told a parliament committee that he had ordered the finance ministry's tax police to investigate, a claim which the department's chief at the time denies.
Ex-finance minister George Papaconstantinou, the first recipient of the data in 2010, said he did not know what had happened to the original version of the list, raising speculation that it could have been tampered with.
Current finance chief Yannis Stournaras has asked France to re-send the list.
Vaxevanis says he got the information in an anonymous letter whose sender claimed to have received it from a politician.
On Wednesday, police arrested another journalist who claimed to have in his possession a list of finance ministry documents allegedly stolen by hackers from the state general accounting office.
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