Sunday, October 28, 2012

The US and Greece: Does the Public Have a Right to Know What Politicians are Hiding?

by Nomad

No matter how cynical Americans are about their politicians and the political process, nothing can compare to the Greeks. Most Greeks you ask on the street would tell you that their government has been corrupt for as long as they can remember.
And that way of thinking goes back to the ancient times too. The philosopher Anacharsis once said,
Written laws are like spiders' webs, and will, like them, only entangle and hold the poor and weak, while the rich and powerful will easily break through them. 
If the Greek public weren’t already by their nature skeptical about the politics, the austerity measures imposed on Greece by the European Union have pushed that cynicism to the breaking point. Mass protests have erupted into violence throughout Greece as European Union leaders in Brussels have attempted to pull the nation back from the edge of bankruptcy.

The Lost LaGarde List
When journalist and HOT DOC magazine editor, Kostas Vaxevanis, published a list of 1,991 people who had 1.95 billion in deposits in the Geneva, Switzerland HSBC bank branch, many were enraged but few were totally surprised.

According to Greek law, there is nothing illegal about having a Swiss bank accounts as long as they are declared and taxes are paid on them. The editor stressed that people on the list should not be considered tax evaders unless it is proved they did not pay taxes on the deposits.

What was interesting was the names on that list which reported included “several politicians, an advisor to Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, well-known businessmen, journalists, doctors, lawyers and engineers, actors and civil servants – some of them working at the Finance Ministry.” The list contained names, not only of Greeks, but foreign nationals who had apparently emptied their accounts from Greek banks and transferred them to HSBC.
The list contains also the names of three former ministers, of whom one died sometime ago. Also the names of owners of enterprises that have gone bankrupt. But also students studying abroad, pensioners and housewives.
Behind the scenes, there's an allegation that is often inferred but rarely stated directly. It is that the financial chaos and the subsequent austerity measures were a result of the middle class not paying their share of taxes and the budget-killing excesses of Greek socialist mentality. 
The other unsaid accusation came from the EU, more precisely from Germany- which is underwriting the loans to keep Greece afloat- Greeks, they suggested, were simply lazy.  
A recent report from the Pew Global Attitudes Project confirmed this perception:
Most EU countries ranked Greece as the “least hardworking country” and believe that Greece strongly disparages European economic integration and the European Union. Although the Greeks consider themselves the most hardworking, they also believe their country to be the most corrupt.
The list suggests there was a lot more to the story, something that the government preferred to keep hidden, purely for political reasons. 

Another aspect that has piqued the anger of the Greek public involves the source of the information and how that embarrassing information was handled- before it was leaked. According to a local source:
The names were said to come from an original list given by former French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde – now the head of the International Monetary Fund, one of Greece’s Troika of international lenders – to former Greek Finance Minister George Papaconstantinou who said he lost them.
The minister blamed his aides for the loss of the information. (What are underlings for?) Before losing the complete list, he had, he told Parliament recently, selected 20 names off the list for investigation. Later, according to reports, the ministry’s legal adviser said the information on the list “would not be enough on its own to bring legal action against suspected tax evaders.” 
That seemed to be the end of the story. Many must have breathed a sigh of relief.  But the storm was only beginning.

The succeeding finance minister, Evangelos Venizelos, located the Lagarde list- stored on a flashdrive. Venizelos in turn, handed the list over to the authorities which set off an investigation by Greek prosecutors as to whether any of those listed had evaded taxes. However, the government refused to release the names on the list and indicated that no politicians had been listed. 

Meanwhile the Prime Minister Antonis Samaras has initiated a $17.45 billion spending cut and tax hike plan. According to reporters, tax evaders who owe the country $70 billion have largely escaped Greece’s crushing economic crisis. The Samaras plan involves “more pay cuts, tax hikes and slashed pensions affecting workers, pensioners and the poor while Greece’s politicians, rich elite and tax heats have been relatively unaffected.”

Given the fact that, contrary to what the government had claimed, politicians were on the list, the full release of the names, therefore, is highly embarrassing to the government and to those mentioned on the list. 

The latest chapter in this drama will surely confirm every cynical, anti-authoritarian thought in the minds of Greek voters. It has been reported today that Greek prosecutors have issued an arrest warrant for Vaxevanis, the journalist that released the controversial list. the charge? Alleged privacy violations. 

His last tweet before being arrested at 11 o’ clock on Sunday morning stated that police had been stationed outside the offices of Hot Doc, as well as outside his home and the homes of his personal friends. 
Prior to his arrest, in an online interview, Vaxevanis said:
“Instead of arresting the tax evaders and the ministers who had the list in their hands, they are trying to arrest the truth and free journalism..
Plight of the WhistleBlowers
This seems to be a trend a nowadays. The laws are used to punish the whistleblowers instead of the wrongdoers. For example, when the Pope’s butler, Paolo Gabriele, removed private papers which allegedly showed corruption at the highest levels in the Vatican, it was the butler that was charged with the theft of private papers. He was later sentenced to 18 months in a prison. Bradley Manning could have warned him.

Meanwhile the information contained in the documents was largely ignored. It is true that the Pope ordered cardinals to carry out an inquiry, independent of the probe by Vatican police after the scandal broke, but the results of that investigation have not been made public. The need for excessive secrecy only undermines the legitimacy of the Pope’s authority. He told reporters that the arrest of his trusted butler "brought sadness in my heart". 
Tut, tut.

When it comes to public figures, an especially political ones, does the right to privacy outweigh the public's right to know? What does a politician, whose authority is based on trust, have the right to keep secret from the people that elected him/her? 
Regarding the private life of public officials, besides outright illegality, there is a the critical question of conflicts of interest. There is the larger question of character and discrepancies between what has been said and what has actually been done

In fact, the case against Vaxevanis will, in all probability, turn out to be yet another embarrassment for the Greek government. Recent decisions by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) upheld the right of the media to report on public figures and limiting celebrities' right to privacy.
The court determined that an injunction restricting publication of articles and photos of the actor was a violation of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights [text, PDF], which protects freedom of expression. 
The case under review involved a famous German actor whose arrest made headlines.
The court determined that the actor was sufficiently well known to qualify as a public figure, which gives the public a greater interest in being informed about his arrest and the proceedings against him.
Prosecutors could argue that not every person on the list was a public figure, of course. But then releasing selected names could open a charge of singling out certain individuals. In any case, dragging out this matter before the eyes of the public in the European courts should involve more humiliation for the people on the list. 

Romney's Excuses
On the other side of the Atlantic the same problem- in another form- has been lately discussed. When called upon the release -in their complete form- his tax returns for the last decade, candidate Mitt Romney simply refused. 
Amazingly the very same people who were once demanding the president release his birth certificate seem perfectly content to let Romney slip through the net. (I imagine these were the same citizens that thought diving into the sleazy sex life of Bill Clinton- both as a candidate and as a presidentl- was reasonable and in the public interest.)

Romney’s latest excuse for not releasing his returns, (as delivered by Ann Romney) was breathtaking.

You know, I think there is reason for all of these things. You know, you should really look at where Mitt has led his life and where he's been financially. He's been a very generous person. We give ten percent of our income to our church every year. Do you think that is the kind of person that is trying to hide things?
It might come as a shock to Ms. Romney but more than half of the voters would probably say Mitt Romney has time after time shown himself to be exactly the kind of person that would try to hide things. I suppose she expects people to take her word for her husband’s honesty, and to stop asking such pesky questions.

For his part, Romney backed up his wife in this religious defense. He told Parade magazine:
“Our church doesn’t publish how much people have given. This is done entirely privately. One of the downsides of releasing one’s financial information is that this is now all public, but we had never intended our contributions to be known. It’s a very personal thing between ourselves and our commitment to our God and to our church.”
Nice try but what about his commitments here on earth- to the voters? Is he planing- as president- to trust Putin (our supposed arch-meanie) or Ahmadinejad without verification? (I suppose their wives would vouch for their husbands in the same way Ann has). Isn't he asking the same take-it-on faith approach- from voters?

Before this, his excuse- which came across as a tad more honest, at least- was that by disclosing all of the details of his finances, he would be giving his opponent more ammunition. That would be especially true, he failed to add, if there was something suspicious to be found in the documents. 

What are the reasonable expectations for privacy for a candidate (or for an elected leader)? If financial records are off-limits, does the candidate have no obligation to release, for example, his medical records or his criminal history or is that also to be left to his or her discretion? 

According to First Amendment Center, in the US, a requirement for bringing legal action for violations of privacy reads like this:

the material published must be private information that “is not of legitimate concern to the public.” Its disclosure must also be “highly offensive to a reasonable person.” Material private enough to trigger this tort claim could include disclosure of sexual orientation, medical history, or other personal, private facets of a person’s life.
Banking information? In the US, the Supreme Court ruled that bank customers had no legal right of privacy for their financial information held by financial institutions. (This in turn necessitated The Right to Financial Privacy Act.)

However much that may be true for a private individual, a person running for office or a person of authority would certainly deserve less privacy in the name of scrutiny. If, for example, has had a history of mental illness, diagnosed by a professional, then any reporter who releases this information to the public should be on safe ground. The public has a right to know and a journalist has a duty to reveal.
The pressing question in public disclosure of private-facts cases is whether the information is newsworthy or of legitimate concern to the public. Newsworthiness is evaluated by an examination of several factors, including the social value of the disclosed material, the depth of intrusion into personal life, and the extent to which the person is already in public view. Even Louis Brandeis and Samuel Warren, authors of a famous 1890 law review article, “The Right To Privacy,” wrote: “The right to privacy does not prohibit any publication of matter which is of public or general interest.”
In both the Greek case and the Romney tax returns issue, there is an undeniable public concern and a general interest. That’s particularly true when a suspicious public has seen how far politicians have gone not to disclose the information. 

Ultimately in the Romney case, the public will have to decide whether they actually want to elect a man who has attempted to hide information that has been pretty routinely released by other candidates. They will have to determine to their own satisfaction whether the Republican candidate should be able to avoid this kind of scrutiny by the voters or whether he has disqualified himself as a candidate. 
In making that essential judgment, the American voters should also consider what kind of president such a person would make. If they ignore those questions, they may just wind up with a government as secretive and with a public as deeply cynical as that of Greece.
Here's an interesting documentary on the Greek crisis. It's important to remember that the austerity measure put in place by the European Union are not much different that the plan the Republicans have proposed under Romney.