The incredible story of Greece’s ‘most wanted’ journalist

  • July 13, 2013

Authority & Abolition

A portrait of Kostas Vaxevanis, Greece’s most persecuted journalist, who acquired global fame and national notoriety after publishing the Lagarde list.

This article, originally published in the weekly De Groene Amsterdammer, was translated from Dutch by Jerome Roos.

Reviled in his own country and hailed abroad, Kostas Vaxevanis is most certainly the loneliest and most persecuted journalist in Greece. He acquired a worldwide reputation and became a thorn in the government’s side after publishing the infamous Lagarde list of potentially tax-evading wealthy Greeks. This essay by leading Dutch journalist Ingeborg Beugel, who served as a correspondent for numerous Dutch newspapers and TV stations in Greece, is a portrait of a lone voice crying in the wilderness — a man who fears for the future of Greek democracy.

“At the moment I feel most threatened by the silence. A deafening silence. For an investigative journalist, nothing is worse than being ignored. I do not fear for myself, but for our democracy. It’s in danger.” Kostas Vaxevanis speaks like an exhausted robot. In recent months, he has tirelessly repeated the same words over and over again. To foreign reporters, mainly, because the Greek press doesn’t want to hear from him anymore — something which, he himself agrees, is utterly incomprehensible. Ever since the first publication of his magazine Hot Doc exposed the scandalous practices of a major Greek bank in May last year, he has revealed one major scandal after another. But none of this is being picked up by his colleagues, none of whom appear willing to cover his stories. Vaxevanis has already received two international journalism awards, but not a single Greek newspaper or broadcaster has written about it. “Even though we Greeks, chauvinistic as we are, are always the first to cry it from the rooftops when a fellow Greek wins something abroad,” he sighs with a wry smile on his face.

Vaxevanis looks like a chain-smoking war correspondent — replete with the stubble, dark rings around his eyes and roughed-up hairdo — but he has never lit a cigarette in his life. Once upon a time, he was indeed one of the few Greek war correspondents, in the Middle East and during the war in Yugoslavia. Now he finds himself on a very different battlefield: in his own country. He is being ridiculed, sabotaged, followed, persecuted, wiretapped, threatened, attacked, and there have been attempts to break into his home — no ordinary burglary, either. It’s almost like he ended up in a bad Hollywood movie. “And that’s precisely the problem. No one believes what’s happening to us. There are things we don’t even publish anymore, just so people will keep taking us seriously.” The fuss is mostly about him, but he consistently talks about “us”: the Hot Doc team and himself.

Mistrust and mathematics as a way of life

We find ourselves in the Hot Doc offices, underneath Vaxevanis’ own home, on the outskirts of Athens, close to the main road to Lamia. It’s not an easily accessible place. The taxi drops you off at a building site. There, you call a secret number and a young man will come to pick you up. Along a dirt road you finally end up in front of a large wall with an iron gate — no signs on it, no name, just surveillance cameras all over the place and four German shepherds on the lookout.

“We had to get out of the city center, it was getting too risky. Thanks to the enormous sales of the issue with the Lagarde list we finally had some money, so together with an architect friend of mine I converted the basement of my home into a newsroom,” he says with a hint of satisfaction in his voice. And rightly so. The house is located in an idyllic neighborhood surrounded by lush bougainvillia and high trees. Outside the windows of the spacious room there is a large terrace, underneath it a half-finished swimming pool — the money ran out. Behind the door you can hear the murmur of twelve editors entirely absorbed into their phone calls and emails in what amounts to one of the nicest and freshest-looking working spaces imaginable — which in itself is uncharacteristic of the mostly dismal, noisy and smokey Greek newsrooms. Hot Doc may be going through hell, but it’s located in paradise.

Vaxevanis, who is the 47-year-old son of a construction worker and a housewife, once studied mathematics and actually ended up in journalism by accident. That was back in 1988, the year that the charismatic Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou — founder of the social democratic party (PASOK) which was the first political force of the left to win Greek elections in a landslide victory in 1981 — was due in court for an embezzlement scandal. He was acquitted, but the damage had already been done. The Greek people always knew that the right was corrupt, but suddenly any hopes that the left was any better were dashed forever.

“That year defined my life. The left had been disgraced, the people defrauded, the voters betrayed. People were longing for democracy. That’s one of the things you guys in the North tend to forget: Greece has never known real democracy. Even after the last junta our democracy was always cripple, limping around on one leg. Papandreou made all kinds of promises, imagination was in power, we saw the world through rose-tinted glasses. And suddenly there was this political ‘nouveau riche’, this populism. Everyone just appropriated democracy for themselves and committed crimes in the name of democracy. Papandreou was supported by the Avriani newspaper, owned by a tycoon friend of his. That’s how the unhealthy relationship and conflict of interests between the Greek political establishment and the press started. ‘Avrianism’ was rampant, it was more than populist, fascist almost. Left and right both seemed rotten. It became like a civil war: everything was determined by the opponent. If you are not for us, you are against us. In that sense, Greece never went through the Enlightenment. As a young journalist, I immediately dived into the deep. I didn’t trust anybody anymore.”

Mistrust and mathematics — those were the ingredients of Vaxevanis’ blend of journalism. “It’s a philosophy, a way of life, that I have always maintained,” he says. Today, he continues to pour out a razor sharp critique of Greek tabloid journalism. And Vaxevanis knows what he is talking about. He has worked for or with about every major Greek media organization, including almost all the serious newspapers and most of the radio and TV stations. In 2011 and 2012 his production company To Kouti Pandoras (Pandora’s Box) delivered news and background reports to ERT, the Greek public broadcaster.

He doesn’t want to think about it anymore. “Every week was a disaster. Again and again they threatened not to broadcast our reports. After all, almost all our reports dealt with scandals surrounding ministers, members of parliament or banks. Before, when I still worked for the commercial broadcasters, I had the same kind of problems. Sometimes a minister or a politician would call the director because he didn’t like something, and I was summoned into the boss’s office. Sometimes it would fizzle out, other times it wouldn’t. But the problem with ERT is that there weren’t even any ministers or MPs calling — no, the director would simply decide all by himself that our reports couldn’t be aired. Pure self-censorship. Not just censorship imposed from the outside, but completely internalized. Now that’s bad. And maddening.”

When eventually only 12 of the 36 reports were aired on TV, after a seemingly endless struggle and a series of explosive fights, Vaxevanis decided enough was enough. He took his entire research team of young whiz kids and started his own magazine, on a 6.000 euro budget, both in print and online. No sooner than the publication of its first issue on May 24, 2012, the trouble began.

Wiretapping, drug-planting and other sinister plots

In a press release a few days before, Hot Doc had announced the great banking scandal — concerning unguaranteed loans, obscure offshore companies, you name it — that the first issue would cover. Suddenly, on May 23, photos were starting to emerge everywhere, on websites, on blogs and even in newspapers, showing a cheque with Vaxevanis’ signature on it: evidence of the fact that he received 50.000 euros from the Greek intelligence agency EYP. The EYP is hated and feared in Greece because of its persecution of mostly leftist and communist Greeks before, during and after the junta. Anyone who is even suspected of having something to do with the EYP simply can’t be trusted. Vaxevanis tried everything to clear his name, writing fiery pieces, suing bloggers for libel and misrepresentation, but nothing worked. His charges were consistently declared ‘inadmissible’ by the public prosecutor, while charges against him were being accepted. He was fighting a losing battle. The rest of the press failed to pick up any of Hot Doc‘s shocking revelations, even though its first issue sold 22.000 copies — a lot for a small country like Greece, and enough for the magazine to survive.

Meanwhile, strange things were starting to happen. Phones were being tapped, Vaxevanis was being followed. The dogs found four men stumbling around the garden. The police were called, but they ended up going to the wrong address, allowing the intruders to escape. That incident, at least, seemed to cause a bit of a stir in the media, which was quick to add that ‘there had been a lot of burglaries’ in the neighborhood lately, which itself was blatantly untrue. Finally, Hot Doc found itself under pressure — and even being threatened — by the big Greek banks.

Vaxevanis: “We said from the very start that we can’t accept advertisements from the government or the banks. The banks didn’t like that. But things are so bad now that if a bank publishes in a newspaper here, those newspapers can’t even criticize the bank anymore. In all the Greek newspapers you now see ads where there should be reports and disclosures. There is a sickening conflict of interests between bankers, businessmen, industrialists and politicians on the one hand, and journalists on the other. For example: nowhere else do you need as many government licenses as in Greece, where you need them for truly everything. Even if you just want to open up a simple kiosk or a souvlaki place, you can only do so with a license for a few years. The commercial broadcasters only have annual licenses. Every year they have to crawl back to the government and beg for an extension of their license. If you criticize the government, you won’t get it. The ERT is a political conduit anyway: the board is directly appointed by the government. And so not a single journalist here is doing what they should be doing: put a check on power and reveal its abuses. And no one seems to be angry or troubled by this. Indifference is widespread.

During the summer, a lady suddenly called Hot Doc saying she wanted to speak to Vaxevanis concerning “a matter of life and death”. Vaxevanis calls her “Maria”. Maria was afraid. Afraid because she had been caught up in something that might end badly, not only for Vaxevanis, but also for herself. After some initial doubts and intense deliberations, the editorial board of Hot Doc decided to listen to her story: she claimed she was the woman who had forged the signature on the EYP-cheque; she talked about assassins from Macedonia who were after Vaxevanis’ life; about a bunch of former secret agents of the EYP and the Macedonian intelligence service who had now started their own venture and who, working for a banker — ‘Big Guy’ — were out to slander not only Vaxevanis with false documents but also a German journalist at Reuters; about a successful burglary at Reuters and another planned burglary at Hot Doc; about the big banker she was working for who had rented a space next to Hot Doc‘s offices when they were still based in Ambelokipi in downtown Athens, and how they were wiretapping and spying on Vaxevanis from there; about the assignment they had received to put drugs in the car of a former employee of Big Guy’s bank who was planning to come out with incriminating evidence about the practices of that bank; and much, much more, including more plans and operations to bring into disrepute a number of other journalists and even politicians.

For many months, the Hot Doc team tried, in the utmost secrecy, to verify Maria’s story. The woman had evidence for everything: official and forged documents, the papers on which she had practiced faking Vaxevanis’ signature, the cheques she had received from the EYP to falsify, photos of the car of the whistle-blower in which they were supposed to plant the heroin, boat tickets to the island on which the car was parked, even clearly audible CD recordings of conversations between her unsavory colleagues, conniving and discussing a wide variety of plots.

Vaxevanis continues to speak straight through my disbelief: “All the evidence is stored at a notary. We gave the full dossier to the public prosecutor in September. Maria is now in a witness protection program, somewhere outside of Athens. After that, we published the entire story, insofar as possible without any names, in Hot Doc. No, no, I can’t tell you the name of the banker, that’s up to the Justice Department.”

One of the editors walks in to go to the bathroom next to the kitchen. A couple of others want to make some coffee. They can. Vaxevanis looks at them with remarkable affection, as if they were his children. When they are gone, he turns back to me. He suddenly looks exhausted. He still hasn’t heard anything from the Justice Department, and he has no idea if or what they are investigating. Has the Greek press, after the publication of this unbelievable story, still refused to say a word? Vaxevanis shrugs. “No. Not a single newspaper, not a single TV station paid attention. Only the press abroad. And our followers on Twitter and Facebook. Without support from the renowned foreign newspapers and without social media, we would be nowhere.”

An improperly obtained USB stick full of compromising data

September 2012 was a busy month. The month in which Vaxevanis was approached by “someone” sitting on top of the so-called Lagarde list. At that point, no one knew about the existence of the list. Even though other countries in Europe’s southern periphery had received similar lists from Christine Lagarde, who was then still the Finance Minister of France and who now heads the IMF. That was three years ago. A certain Falcani, an employee at HSBC in Switzerland, had left the bank with a number of files listing the names, accounts and deposited sums of wealthy citizens from the Southern European countries: potential tax evaders. Falcani somewhat improperly passed the information on to Lagarde, who in turn passed it on to her Southern European colleagues on a number of USB sticks. Italy, Spain and Portugal immediately started working on the lists, and clawed back billions of euros worth in tax payments. Vaxevanis had never heard of the information, until he received the list with 2.059 Greek names and accompanying data. No, no one knows how that transpired, he adds with a wink, just he and his source. And no, he has never personally met his source. “But I think I know who it is. I don’t know his motives, but I believe they are pure and correct,” Vaxevanis says sternly. It reminds me of Watergate. Bernstein never met his deep throat either.

When he saw the file, Vaxevanis nearly fell off his chair: the list contained the names of a number of well-known Greek businessmen, real estate developers, politicians, journalists, lawyers, former ministers, former secretaries of state and family members of current government officials. Moreover, all the owners of Greece’s commercial TV and radio stations turned out to be connected to the list in one way or another. He realized that he was sitting on top of a bombshell. After all, how would the Greek people react to a list of potential tax evaders containing the names of the same very people who were now cutting their salaries and pensions, imposing one unpalatable tax after another, all while depositing their own money abroad in foreign bank accounts?

After everything Vaxevanis had already been through, he couldn’t afford to make a single mistake. He first of all called up a number of acquaintances who were also on the list. As it turns out, they already knew of the list’s existence, because after finding out what Falcani had done, the HSBC had individually called each and every single one of their wealthy Southern European customers to warn them and to offer them to close their accounts. Many had already done so. And, other than that, they had obviously remained silent as the grave. But to Vaxevanis they could no longer stay silent: “Maybe because they had closed their accounts long ago and fancied themselves safe? But of course it doesn’t matter. They used to have those accounts. Many of the accounts were transit accounts to channel money through. That happened a lot in the run-up to the Olympic Games in Athens in 2004, during which the Greek elite shamelessly enriched itself. All of that needs to be investigated. The fact that you only have 10.000 euros in your account now doesn’t mean that it can’t be 5 million tomorrow, or that it wasn’t 50 million at some point in the past.”

Afterwards, Vaxevanis put his entire team on the phone, because a handful of confirmations clearly wouldn’t be enough to run the story. For days on end, they called around 1.000 people, recording all those conversations and documenting everything. They consulted lawyers and legal experts and determined a strategy. Everyone had to swear an oath of secrecy and absolutely nothing was allowed to come out before publication. Hot Doc decided to only publish the names, not the account numbers, let alone the deposited sums, which would be punishable under law as a violation of privacy.

Now there are sparks of joy in Vaxevanis’ eyes. For a bit, he looks just like a kid: “Until this very day, no one knows how we managed to publish that issue in such utmost secrecy. Our printing presses belong to Bobolas, the media tycoon, owner of the commercial mammoth station MEGA. It happened on September 28, in the dead of night. The building was surrounded and protected by our own people, the workers and technicians didn’t know a thing, except for a couple of friends of ours on the inside. Some of the prints didn’t come out very well, so we had to take them out. Normally you throw those failed copies away, but we immediately burned them. We loaded the trucks ourselves and accompanied some of them to distribute it all. We were exhausted, we didn’t sleep for a week. But everything went perfectly.”

And then the bomb exploded.

“Kill the messenger: that’s how we do it in Greece”

Vaxevanis was told that he would be arrested before the Hot Doc issues would even make it to the stands. He heard it from friends. The police had shown up at their doorsteps looking for him. He went to a house of acquaintances to consult his lawyers. Because the phone was being tapped, the authorities quickly discovered his whereabouts. Vaxevanis seems bitter now: “it was as if they showed up with fifty officers. They were aggressive, heavy-handed, as if I were some kind of criminal. And they were very quick to arrest me, in contrast to their flaccid response to the MP of the extreme right-wing Golden Dawn party, who was charged for slapping a fellow MP in the face. In his case it took a week before he was arrested.” Just for a bit Vaxevanis raises his voice. Then he continues on a more resigned note: “Ah, well, it’s like the New York Times wrote: here they don’t go after the tax evaders, the big fish, but they go for the journalist who exposes them. You just kill the messenger. That’s how we do it in Greece.”

The next day, Vaxevanis was accused of violating the privacy of the people on the Lagarde list. He was immediately acquitted, in front of the cameras and microphones of the entire foreign press corps. His lawyers had already unsuccessfully argued that the charges were full of procedural inconsistencies: the signature of the public prosecutor on the indictment was missing, for instance, and not a single Hot Doc issue had been presented as evidence. But none of this seemed to matter. Only after the acquittal the prosecutor suddenly agreed that errors had been made. Against all the rules and procedures, they decided not to appeal but to start a re-trial on June 10, an unprecedented move in the country’s legal history. Abroad, there was outrage — and, for once, even a lone Greek newspaper agreed.

The genie, however, was out of the bottle. The Greek people, their backs broken by a thousand cuts and taxes, were absolutely outraged. They felt betrayed to the very bone. Hot Doc instantly gained national fame and was sold throughout the country. The government could no longer ignore the popular outrage and decided to call a parliamentary inquiry, something that rarely happens in Greece — and, in contrast to other countries, always takes place behind closed doors. A vote was taken to subpoena only former Finance Minister Papaconstantinou of the ruling conservative party, and not his successor — Venizelos of PASOK, also in the governing coalition — who briefly “lost” the list as well and who, as it turned out, even had the USB stick lying around his home for a while. Better to make a herculean effort to shift responsibility onto a single former minister, so the whole affair can be dismissed as an ‘incident’, than risk dragging down the entire sitting coalition, those in government must have reasoned.

To add insult to injury, further investigation revealed that the list published by Hot Doc did not match the original list in Paris. The Parisian list had 2.062 names on it, while Hot Doc‘s version, stemming from the minister’s office, contained “only” 2.059. The names of three family members of the minister were missing, providing some food for thought. The public of course bluntly accused Papaconstantinou of purposefully deleting the names of his family members and mercilessly dragged him through the mud. The minister himself denies having tampered with the list and claims to have been framed.

Vaxevanis grimaces: “It’s not about those three names. The point is that in this country the list can simply disappear for three years without anyone doing anything about it. While Greece stumbles blindly into the abyss and school children are forced to eat from the garbage bins, the government is allowing tax evaders to get away unpunished. That’s unacceptable.” Does he expect anything from the parliamentary committee? “Nothing whatsoever. Three members of the committee are connected to the list themselves. Not a soul is writing about that. The chairman of the committee was once caught up in a legal case for purchasing helicopters for the forest fires at three times the normal price. He would have been taken to court, but thanks to the immunity law of the same Venizelos who just escaped prosecution, his case has now been declared inadmissible under the statute of limitations. While for a normal citizen legal proceedings expire after a 20-year period, for a minister it does so after just one year. It will be the same story with Papaconstantinou. They’ll certainly find something, he will be taken to the highest court, and the case will expire under the statute of limitations. It’s a cover-up.” On his own trial of June 10, Vaxevanis is defiant: “If they do convict me this time, I will not buy off my punishment; I want to go to prison. We’ll see what happens then. I will take action from behind the bars, and the whole world will be watching Greece.”

“Our president has become a debt collector”

Meanwhile, as this piece was being written, Vaxevanis’ trial took place. It ended up being quite an anticlimax: this time around, the final judgment was postponed until October 8. Once again, the whole affair was rather clumsy. Vaxevanis’ most important witnesses were absent for legitimate reasons. Two of his three lawyers also couldn’t make it; one of them ironically because he had to work on the parliamentary investigation of the Lagarde list. Under such circumstances it’s normally standard practice — indeed, a matter of routine — to immediately grant postponement. But both the prosecutor and the judge demanded that the trial continue. After hours of fussing and fighting, and with the utmost difficulty, Vaxevanis’ only available lawyer finally managed to obtain a formal postponement. In the courtroom next door a member of Golden Dawn, accused of serious physical abuse, received several months of postponement within five minutes. Remarkably, and unlike the time before, there was hardly any international press at the proceedings. Vaxevanis, speaking over the phone: “I was immensely close to being tried without witnesses, without lawyers, and no one would have said a word.”

So Vaxevanis took to Twitter and Facebook last week, grumbling on the To Kouti Pandoras website about his unfair treatment, about the violation of the law and the democratic principles that had once again been disrespected, and patiently answered as many questions from foreign journalists as he could. All to no avail. The next day, the world’s attention shifted to the dramatic closure of the public broadcaster ERT. Prime Minister Samaras of the conservative New Democracy party simply decided — all by himself and without consulting his social-democratic coalition partners PASOK and DIMAR — to immediately send home ERT’s 2.656 workers by simply shutting down the broadcaster. That way he also managed to circumvent the thousands of highly complex and protracted dismissal procedures that apply to Greece’s public officials.

In the evening, riot police invaded the ERT premises — without any warning whatsoever — to literally pull the plug on the TV station. Unexpecting Greeks throughout the country saw their TV screens turning black. After midnight, the transmitters at the ERT’s central headquarters in Athens were targeted, in scenes reminiscent of the dark days of the German occupation and the junta. According to Samaras, the ERT was a ‘hotbed of opacity, mismanagement, fraud and corruption’ and its closure was the ‘only option’. Coming from Samaras, these remarks seemed all the more ironic. After all, every single one of Greece’s previous governments had gratuitously doled out ERT jobs to their friends after their respective election victories. Following the June 2012 elections, Samaras himself appointed as many as 28 people to the ERT board at excessively high salaries.

Vaxevanis, who once ran away from the ERT in disgust, is now supporting the fired ERT workers who have occupied their buildings and who keep broadcasting over the Internet. I decide to call him one last time. Wasn’t it a self-censoring cowardly gang? I asked him. Weren’t they the slaves of the government? Weren’t they utterly unmanageable? Isn’t a radical shut-down and a fresh start with a clean slate the only hope for a well-functioning and journalistically independent future Greek broadcaster? Vaxevanis, now foaming with rage: “All true. But underneath that corrupt management there was a handful of very competent and driven journalists, program-makers and technicians who despite everything tried to do their jobs as well as they could. They have now been sacrificed. This is not about our broadcaster; it’s about our democracy. This is the umpteenth decision of the government that Samaras pushed through by decree, without any debate in parliament, without proposing any bill. Just like it used to happen in the Weimar Republic. The president could have refused, but he himself has become a debt collector. Our democracy is in danger.”

Ingeborg Beugel

Ingeborg Beugel is a Dutch journalist who was formerly based in Greece as a foreign correspondent for various Dutch media. She regularly appears on Dutch television and in print to comment on the Greek debt crisis.

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