Kostas Vaxevanis: "The only way for the Greek people to know about their own country is through the foreign press"

The Greek journalist, who was instrumental in the publication of the "Lagarde list" of major tax evaders in October 2012, talks to the NS's Daniel Trilling.

Kostas Vaxevanis is a Greek journalist. As editor of the investigative magazine HotDoc, in October 2012 he published the leaked “Lagarde list” of major tax evaders – an act for which he has been pursued by the Greek authorities, raising questions about a crackdown on independent journalism. The New Statesman caught up with Vaxevanis during a recent trip to London to receive Index on Censorship’s Freedom of Expression Award.

New Statesman: In your acceptance speech for the Index award, you raised the spectre of Greece’s dictatorship years. Is there any danger of a return to that kind of period?

Vaxevanis: It is worrying what is happening in Greece as I said in my speech. It is the first time since the last dictatorship that people can’t rely on the press to see what is happening in their own country. The Greek media for example didn’t cover the case while I was being prosecuted a few months ago.

Every day in Greece, we face the effects of the crisis and there are new measures that are being taken that goes against every right of the public. These new regulations don’t even go through parliament – there is actually a law where you can have a new decision signed by the president under emergency clauses and then rectify it later by the prime minister so they are basically governing the country under presidential decrees and statutes.

They basically pass new laws in whatever way possible to serve certain interests and parts of society and political systems. For example when the agricultural bank of Greece, was supposed to pay millions [in tax], a new law was passed that said they didn’t have to pay anything.

Many TV channels and newspapers are owned by business interests that might benefit from such laws. Has political interference in the media become more common as the crisis gets worse?

In Greece, like in many countries, there is a relationship where the media tries to hold government to account and government will try to hide things. It is ultimately a conflict of interest. Any kind of independent journalism is seen as a threat.

For many years they managed to manipulate the media: for example, you would have a journalist working in the government’s press office and public PR offices and for big businesses. Often these are big businesses that have links and dealings with the government.

During the crisis there has been a greater need for journalists to speak out, but then they automatically become an enemy of the government. I have just received a message from a friend and colleague where he congratulates me for my [Index ] award, but apologises that he can’t say anything about it this evening in his television programme.

The cross-over between journalism and politics is common in Britain and other countries, to a certain extent. What is different about Greece right now?

Of course this is happening everywhere, it’s of course not just a Greek problem, but it has gone to the next level where ministers have complete impunity and they have methods of acting really fast to serve their own interests. And of course this is amplified by the crisis.

For example one of the biggest scandals was with Proton Bank, where the owner bought ten to twenty per cent of twenty-two different media outlets, to make sure no one would write anything against him. And there is no law to prevent a business from spreading in such a way.

The existence of privately-owned, unregulated television channels goes back well before the financial crisis. What sort of long-term effect has this had on Greek society? The TV channels have been blamed for encouraging anti-immigration attitudes, for example.

They have a huge part of the responsibility for that culture of the last ten or twenty years; consumerism and people not being engaged in what is happening, and not caring about the impact of their political action.

With immigration, in the last few years since the bailout, the role of the media has been to create fear among the people. And the most obvious way of creating fear would be to amplify the danger of immigration in Greece. And we would often hear about [the far-right party] Golden Dawn in the news. They would try to create the view: “yes all of us who are in power might be corrupt, but if we stopped being in power and being in control then there is always that danger. So it is basically better to have this corrupt system than any government at all.”

So the media were exaggerating the threat of Golden Dawn?

Yes but it was a two-way thing. By exaggerating the threat of Golden Dawn they are giving them a voice and then it becomes bigger by appearing as a threat and it gives them a new way of communicating with the public.

What they are trying to do is presenting the “two opposites” view where Golden Dawn is one extreme and [the left-wing] Syriza is the other. They are trying to do what they are doing in Italy where they say “well you have these two polar opposites, all you have to do is come somewhere in the middle, where we are. We might be corrupt but you sure don’t want any of those two.”

What happens in the media outside of Greece can have quite a big effect on Greek politics. So for journalists and people outside of Greece what is the most important thing they could be doing?

The only way for the Greek people to know about their own country is through the foreign press. They played a significant role in my case. While this was going on, during the prosecution, we had BBC, Al-Jazeera, CNN treating it as breaking news while Greek media was being quiet about it. Ten days ago I was given another award in Spain, a Journalism Award and a Press Award – no one in Greece will ever hear anything about either those things.

This is really the place to fight that control, in this day and age the Greek people are not limited by the national boundaries and they just look on the internet and find other sources of information. And that kind of potential foreign media can have is very significant. The role of social media is very important, I tweeted something in a press conference earlier and that reached 300,000 people.

The risk of foreign media coverage is that you want to highlight the problems but you might end up making Greece look like a unique case. Is there anything journalists abroad should be wary of?

Obviously there are some very specific issues with journalism and freedom of expression in Greece, but it is potentially a problem in every country and it is something journalists have to deal with every day.

If there was a similar case like mine in the UK the rights of democracy would be raised by every media outlet instead of just one newspaper. In Greece that would never happen. We have to do something about it, demand answers. Every time someone tries to go against what has happened or try to write something about it they will be accused of all sort of horrible things, for example when I talked about the Greek banks there were all types of blogs that mentioned my name and claimed my involvement with the secret services.

When Reuters investigated the Greek banks, they were threatened with being sued, and so was the Guardian [when it reported on the police torture of protesters] . So it’s a multilevel issue where people need to know what is happening and what has happened. Journalists need to speak up and their voices have to be heard.

Kostas Vaxevanis (L) being escorted to the public prosecutor in Athens by plain-clothed police officers in October 2012. Photograph: Getty Images

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue