A Conversation With Kostas Vaxevanis, the Greek Journalist Arrested for Publishing the 'Lagarde List'

11/19/2012 09:46 am ET | Updated Jan 19, 2013

Kostas Vaxevanis is no stranger to headlines. As one of Greece's best-known investigative reporters, he has covered major stories and controversies, both within and beyond Greece. Recently, however, Vaxevanis was the one who made international headlines, following his arrest which resulted from his publication of the "Lagarde List" of alleged tax evaders from Greece with Swiss bank accounts. In a recent interview which was recorded one day after his arrest, Vaxevanis defended his innocence, discussed the significance of the "Lagarde List" and his rationale for publishing it, and made the serious and shocking allegation that an attempt was made against his life.

Vaxevanis is a well-regarded investigative journalist whose career began in 1988. He is currently the publisher of Hot Doc, a weekly investigative newsmagazine, where the "Lagarde List" was published. His arrest came on October 28, on charges of violating personal privacy laws. He was acquitted in a hearing held on November 1, though prosecutors have since appealed the verdict. He will now face a retrial.

According to Vaxevanis, the decision to publish the list was carefully weighed. "It was a major decision for us to publish the list, and it was difficult for us to ascertain that this was the authentic list and not one of the many forged lists which have been circulating," said Vaxevanis. He added that his team of journalists at Hot Doc conducted an extensive investigation to determine the legitimacy of the list prior to publication. Vaxevanis stated that Hot Doc received the list in an envelope containing a compact disc and a letter, from an anonymous individual claiming to have a source within the government.

The "Lagarde List" originated from a larger list that was provided by an HSBC employee to French authorities. This list contained names of account holders from a number of other European countries, including Greece. In April 2010, Giorgos Papakonstantinou, who was Greece's finance minister at the time, allegedly was given the names of Greek account holders on that list by Christine Lagarde, who was then France's finance minister and who is now the head of the IMF. The USB flash drive containing the list then changed hands several times, ultimately ending up in the possession of Evangelos Venizelos, the current leader of the PASOK political party. The list was subsequently "lost."

"The Greek public understands that these are lies that are being told for particular reasons, and those reasons are evident by looking at the names on the list," said Vaxevanis. These names included those of politicians, businesspeople, media moguls, doctors and lawyers.

Vaxevanis emphasized that he was not accusing anyone on the list of tax evasion, pointing out that this was also stated in Hot Doc alongside the published list. He proclaimed his innocence on the charges of violating privacy laws, stating that the publication of a list of account holders at a particular bank is not a violation of privacy.

"What this reveals," according to Vaxevanis, "is that the elite of Greek society are not contributing their fair share during this time of crisis by paying taxes. Instead they are depositing their money overseas, which is something the public has long suspected but could not prove. The publication of this list was in the public interest."

According to Vaxevanis, his arrest was politically motivated, as the authorities sought to "punish an independent magazine and an independent voice." He added that there was an evident double-standard in his arrest, noting that other prominent media outlets, including newspapers such as Ta Nea and Proto Thema and the online news portal zougla.gr, republished the list without facing any repercussions. Furthermore, 20 days prior to the publication of the "Lagarde List" in Hot Doc, Ta Nea published a list of well-known Greek entertainers and their tax returns, without facing legal trouble.

What accounts for this apparent double-standard? Vaxevanis says that the explanation is simple. "We're not on the list. They are people who are close to the centers of power, and their names are on the list. We're an independent magazine that is speaking out against corruption, therefore we had to be punished." He added that the fact that most Greek media outlets did not cover his arrest, even while the story made headlines overseas, "demonstrates their guilt."

"Greece is ruled by a small group of politicians, businesspeople and journalists with the same interests," said Vaxevanis. He added that most journalists in Greece are unable to perform their jobs properly, in part due to government pressure and threats, and also because journalism in Greece, instead of serving as a watchdog of the country's power structures, has become embedded within those structures.

Vaxevanis saved his most serious allegation for the end of the interview: he was recently the target of an assassination attempt. According to Vaxevanis, a group of five individuals had hidden outside his home, preparing to ambush him upon his return. By a stroke of luck, Vaxevanis evaded the attackers, as he had unexpectedly arrived home earlier than usual that day by car, instead of the motorbike he usually rode. Vaxevanis said that the police have not treated the matter seriously, dismissing the incident as an attempted robbery, but he stated that he is aware of the identities of the five individuals, who he claims are connected to the country's power structures and whose identities he will soon reveal.

"Presently, attempts are being made to silence independent voices," said Vaxevanis. "Some will be silenced by discrediting them, while others might be silenced physically."

When asked if he regretted publishing the list, Vaxevanis' response was an adamant "no."

"How could I regret doing something that has united all of Greece?" said Vaxevanis. "This is one of the few instances when all Greeks have united, demanding change and an end to corruption."

Vaxevanis extended a special thank you to his supporters, who stood by him between the time of his arrest and his acquittal, stating that without their support, he "may have been sitting in a jail cell."

In closing, Vaxevanis vowed to continue his investigative work and his pursuit of the truth.

"We will continue doing our job, and that is to uncover everything that others wish to hide."

The podcast of the Dialogos Radio interview with Kostas Vaxevanis can be heard here.