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In Greece, free press pays the price for crossing the government

Greece's economic crisis, caused in part by nepotism and corruption, is making corruption harder to root out by letting business interests tighten the screws on investigative journalists.

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    Photo journalist and magazine publisher Kostas Vaxevanis makes statements outside a court in Athens in Oct. 2012. Mr. Vaxevanis is one of several journalists to have faced retaliation for challenging the narrative of media under control of Greek business moguls.
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For months in 2012, everyone in Greece knew about the "Lagarde list," but few had actually seen it.

The list contained the names of 2,000-plus possible Greek tax evaders who held Swiss bank accounts, and was given by former French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde to her Greek counterparts in October 2010, during the worst of Greece's economic crisis.

But government officials claimed to have lost the list – first by misplacing the CD it was on, then by losing the USB drive they copied it to – and then dragged their heels for months.

Then, in the fall of 2012, Greek investigative journalist Kostas Vaxevanis got a copy of the list and published it in his magazine Hot Doc. He named politicians, their relevant family members, and business moguls. Suddenly, the government sprang into action. In less than 24 hours a warrant was issued and 50 police officers were deployed to arrest Mr. Vaxevanis, not the tax evaders. 

"They're entering the house with a prosecutor now. They're arresting me. Spread the word," he tweeted.

Vaxevanis was ultimately acquitted of charges of "invasion of privacy" over publishing the Lagarde list. But the government's apparent efforts to stop him from digging too deeply into corruption are all too familiar to Greece's journalistic community.

Since the start of the economic crisis six years ago, journalists in Greece have come under increasing fire from government officials and the business tycoons connected to them. Without domestic laws to protect free press and free speech, journalists are left vulnerable and open to intimidation. As a result, the country has fallen steeply on the press-freedom index compiled by the watchdog group Reporters Without Borders, from 31st place in 2008 to 70th in 2010 and 99th this year.

"The problem is how to create a medium that will be at the same time independent and financially sustainable, in a country in deep economic crisis," Nikolas Leontopoulos, an investigative journalist, who was fired after he refused to bury a scandal involving Greece's biggest fast-food company. "This problem is still unresolved."

A history of corruption

The corruption that has long plagued Greece and precipitated the economic crisis continues on here, including in the media sector. A genuinely free press is difficult when the business elite control much of the coverage, analysts say.

"Practically all of the country's major television and radio stations, newspapers, and magazines, as well as major web portals, belong to a handful of extremely wealthy and well-connected media and business moguls," says Michalis Nevradakis, a Ph.D. student at the University of Texas at Austin and expert on Greek media. "[They] use their media outlets to exert pressure on the government of the day and to present an almost completely one-sided [version of] their own political point of view."

"The same owners who control the major media outlets also own and operate most of the country's major banks and financial institutions, major gas and oil companies and major shipping interests, as well as large construction firms, which receive major contracts from the state for public works projects," Mr. Nevradakis added.

Even so, the issues aren't completely new. What is new the greater influence of the business community amid the ongoing eurocrisis.

Privately held media in Greece is relatively young, the first nongovernmental radio station having launched in 1987 and the first private TV channel being licensed two years later. But even the private outlets remained under government influence: Licenses were doled out as political favors. 

Economic leverage

But as the economic crisis hits both circulation and advertising revenues, newspapers and TV stations have seen a drop in revenue which means they are forced to depend on banks for loans. Still, those loans come with conditions, some say, on how the outlets report on politicians and the government.

"Our newspaper had assets to use as guarantees to get a loan and it also had the smallest debt among the [Greek] media," says Thanasis Tsitsas, the New York-correspondent for Eleftherotipia newspaper, in illustrating why it should have been easy to get a loan. But "Eleftherotipia was among the few media that criticized the bailout program and warned that Greece was being sacrificed in order to save the European banks."

For months the negotiations between the newspaper and the banks continued. "Just before shutting down, the newspaper's management was in negotiations with the banks, a series of scandals that involved government senior executives was published," says Tsitsas. "And that was the end of the newspaper." Eleftherotipia shut down after leaving its 850 employees without a job and still claiming compensation and unpaid salaries.

At the same time, Mega Channel, a private TV station, was given a loan of 100 million euros even though it had racked up 20 million euro in damages and 200 million euros in debt. Unlike Eleftherotipia, Mega Channel toed the government line and backed austerity measures imposed by the Troika – the EU, the IMF and the European Central Bank – through its broadcasts.

The message is clear: toe the line or leave, say journalists.

'Not afraid of the truth'

For his part, since publishing the Lagarde list, Vaxevanis has been a frequent visitor to the court houses of Athens. "We have about 30 lawsuits [a year]," he says. "It has cost us 50,000 euros [$63,000] and of course a lot of time in preparation."

Meanwhile, only a quarter of the people on the list – including two close advisers of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, and four cousins of former Finance Minister Giorgos Papaconstantinou – are being investigated. The procedure is complicated and it takes many months to gather the data for each case.

But Hot Doc keeps publishing, and Vaxevanis has no regrets. "I'm a journalist, and I did my job."

"I want to be a journalist in a country that is not afraid of the truth," he says. "I don't want myself or any other journalist to be in danger because of what we reveal."

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