This article was originally published on opendemocracy.net
In 2006, Mr Vgenopoulos bought a percentage of the Laiki Bank in Cyprus, through the Marfin Investment Group (MIG). Since then, the bank has been used to grant loans to businesses and individuals so that they may increase their share capital in MIG. Within Greece, MIG seemed like a giant, at the leading edge of the financial miracle. Despite occasional reports, the Governor of the Central Bank of Greece assured everyone that this was all legal.
At the end, the Laiki Bank collapsed and dragged Cyprus down with it. My magazine published the entire history of the theft of capital involved, utilising official documents including one report on the control mechanism of the Bank of Greece, which in 2009 mentioned the dangers implicit in the loaning process.
Andreas Vgenopoulos, instead of replying to these public accusations and disclosures, filed an official complaint. Apparently everyone has the right to choose legal measures to defend themselves, if they are offended. But here we have a Greek phenomenon. Politicians, businessmen, public figures regarding whom scandalous things are revealed through investigative journalism, instead of replying publicly, as they should, file complaints and lawsuits.
So the public, instead of getting answers, hears only about a slew of complaints and lawsuits filed in order to construct the image of an “offended and slandered victim”. Political and business elites have created an industry of lawsuits and intimidation, instead of apologising.
When, after many years, the cases go to trial, the harassed journalist, who has suffered great financial cost, has to continue to do his job. Needless to say, these legal measures are used against independent journalists and are usually accompanied by various anonymous reports in anonymous blogs which wonder whether the journalist is being paid off. Thus, the intimidation and the “hostage taking” of journalists replace any requirement for public figures to be accountable.
And what do the journalists do to defend themselves? That is a long story. In 1989, private television was introduced in Greece. This seemed to be the voice of freedom measured against a “public” television controlled by the government. Soon it became clear that this was not the case. The businessmen who invested in these new media used them as a means of pressuring successive governments in order to close various lucrative government deals. The former prime minister, Kostas Karamanlis, called them “a group of pimps” before finally succumbing to them.
Alongside the press interest groups, companies for audience monitoring and media retailers were established, all getting a slice of the revenue and advertising pie. Very soon an interwoven system was created. Journalists should have stood out against this system. Unfortunately they stood beside it. Today in Greece, where not even a grocery store can operate without a license, a law has been passed that allows TV channels to operate without a permanent license.
The policy of the banks added to this mess. They loaned to publishers, creating another hostage-taking relationship. Recently a Greek channel (one of many that exist, and it’s a wonder how they survive financially), ALTER, closed leaving debts and loans of over 500 million euros. This means that a company whose market value was only a few million received loans of one hundred times that amount.
There is a corrupt core operating in Greece. It consists of businessmen doing whatever they like, even breaking the law, of politicians that secure government deals with them and legitimise them by passing laws, and of journalists who don’t say a word.
When last October, Hot Doc published the Lagarde list of Greek depositors in Switzerland who had never been audited, the Public Prosecutor’s Office instead chose to charge me, without the official complaint of a single citizen. They arrested me at a friend’s house on the grounds of a personal data breach. Since then, five newspapers have published lists of tax evaders or others who are being legally audited, but the Public Prosecutor did not bring any charges. I was violently brought to trial and acquitted. And then the Public Prosecutor again did something unprecedented. They had the verdict cancelled and ordered that I should go on trial again on June 6. Apparently they didn’t like the fact that I was initially acquitted.
None of the Greek mass media (whose owners were on the Lagarde list) said anything about this whole affair. My arrest, my trial and my silencing were a huge point of discussion in the foreign press, but not in the Greek ones. Of course this was not the only case. When a few months ago Reuters, after a big inquiry, disclosed the substantial scandals of a Greek bank, again no comment from the Greek media. On the contrary, they published the bank’s denial. It was ridiculous and at the same time tragic to see a hollow denial for something that had never been published in the first place.
The same bank became the subject of a Hot Doc investigative report. On the same day, a fake story appeared in an anonymous blog that presented me as an employee of the Secret Services. A few months later, five people ambushed me in the garden of my house, waiting for me to come home. I called the police, but they diminished the charges to “attempted burglary”. Again the mainstream media has mentioned nothing about the incident, although it concerned a journalist and a well-known citizen.
Greece lives in the grip of a peculiar state within the state. The role of journalism is trimmed and those who defend it are being targeted. Silence and concealment is one issue. The second is that an effort is being made to criminalise the investigation of the truth in opposition to the public’s right to transparent and accountable journalism. In essence, the basic journalistic functions of public scrutiny have been neutralised.
I will mention one other example from Hot Doc. Recently we discovered that Ilias Philippakopoulos, the director of New Democracy, the leading party in the government, had been an enthusiastic supporter of the Greek Junta. We published letters which he had written praising the military dictatorship which ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974. The Prime Minister and his party had the obligation to prosecute this antidemocratic member of their executive. Not only did they not, but they didn’t even answer our request for an official public statement.
Greece lives under a hybrid democracy. Sure, the citizens can vote every four years, but then democracy becomes a process of manipulation by politicians, much of it deeply corrupted by vested interests. In the last three years alone, over 30 laws have been passed which favour the interests of businessmen. The citizens never learn about this, so they cannot form an opinion, nor react to it. The Greek press, being in a chronic financial state, is funded by banks’ promotions, loans and state organisations that give out their favours selectively.
Since 2010, Lavrentis Lavrentiadis, the owner of Proton Bank, who has now been detained for the embezzlement of 800 million euros, bought 10-20 per cent of almost all the media in Greece: thereby securing their silence for whatever scandalous thing he did. Independent journalism is up against a system that knows that it is in mortal danger from disclosure and will do anything it needs to survive. It funds publishers, it is engaging journalists in money laundering, and in return employs them in “press offices”. A network of bribery has always existed, but now a culture of silence has spread everywhere.
When we launched the publication of Hot Doc exactly one year ago, we chose the motto “the truth as it is, the journalism as it should be”. That is exactly what we believe. We have to reinvent journalism and to reassign it its rightful role as an authority alongside the other authorities. Alongside society.
Kostas Vaxevanis is a Greek investigative journalist and Index on Censorship Award-winner.