Greece: Trial of journalist a blow to freedom of speech

The Greek authorities must uphold the right to freedom of expression, said Amnesty International today following the prosecution of journalist Costas Vaxevanis.The organization’s comments came on Thursday as Vaxevanis went to trial in Athens for breach of privacy after publishing the names of some 2,000 Greeks alleged to have HSBC bank accounts in Switzerland and calling for investigations into possible tax evasion.The investigative journalist and editor was arrested last Sunday after he published the list, which includes the names of Greek public political and business figures, in the magazine Hot Doc, where he is an editor.”It is deeply troubling that Vaxevanis is facing criminal charges, and possibly jail time, for disclosing information in the public interest,” said Marek Marczyński, Deputy Europe and Central Asia Programme Director at Amnesty International.“This step increases the risk that other journalists will censor themselves and refrain from legitimate criticism of the government to avoid prosecution. This chilling effect would seriously undermine freedom of expression – a central purpose of which is to foster informed public debate about the functioning of government.“The Greek authorities must clearly demonstrate why this severe sanction is necessary and proportionate in this case. The right to privacy should not be used to silence criticism of the government.” The names published by Vaxevanis are believed to be those contained in the so-called “Lagarde List” that was given in 2010 to the Greek Minister of Finance by the current head of the IMF and then-French minister for Finance, Christine Lagarde.The list, which allegedly contains the names of prominent people in Greece who are suspected of using the accounts to evade taxes, has sparked fierce political debate in the country as it struggles with the imposition of severe austerity measures.Vaxevanis was charged with a misdemeanour for breach of the law on the protection of personal data and, if found guilty, could face a prison sentence, reportedly of up to two years, and a fine.Journalists suspendedVaxevanis’ trial comes amid rising concerns over the suspension of journalists Marilena Kassimi and Christos Arvanitis as presenters of a morning magazine programme on the State national TV channel NET-TV.The suspensions came after the pair critically debated the stance of Nikolaos Dendias, the Minister of Citizens’ Protection, in relation to allegations police carried out torture or other ill-treatment on 15 anti-fascist protesters in the Attika General Police Directorate and referred to a report sent by an investigative judge to the Public Prosecutor requesting that any police officer responsible for the ill-treatment of the protesters to be charged with a felony.A report by state pathologists, who examined eight of the arrested protesters, confirmed they had suffered bodily harm and one of them suffered serious bodily injuries.The Minister denied the allegations and said he would file a criminal complaint against The Guardian newspaper in the UK that had published the claims. Amnesty International recently issued a statement expressing profound concerns over allegations of torture or other ill-treatment being conducted by police officers and called the Greek authorities to send a strong message against police abuse.