Greeks fight back against corruption
- 1 January 2013
- From the section Magazine
Ordinary Greeks are finding ways of fighting back against endemic levels of corruption in their country, with a number of websites now allowing people to report cases of bribery.
Kristina Tremonti's first brush with "fakelaki" came when her grandfather needed urgent treatment at a public hospital in Kalamata, southern Greece.
Treatment is supposed to be free. Fakelaki is the Greek term which means "little envelope", but has come to describe a wide range of bribery. It is pronounced "fakk-el-akee".
"He's actually a war veteran and he was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer," she said.
"One night he had incessant bleeding and we had to rush him to hospital. We were faced with absolute negligence. Nobody gave us the time of day - they were very disrespectful and basically ignored my grandfather."
"We sort of picked up the cue that they were expecting a bribe, so as soon as my mother reached into her purse and gave them the amount - which I believe now was 300 euros (£240; $395) - he was submitted to the operating room within an hour."
The experience traumatised her to such an extent that, even though she was studying at university in the US, she became determined to discover how widespread the practice was in Greece.
Inspired by similar websites in India and Kenya, Kristina set up edosafakelaki (meaning "I paid a bribe") which allows people to report anonymously on cases of bribe-giving or taking, or indeed cases where bribes were refused.
"In the beginning, people were surprised to see the stories they were previously only hearing at dinner tables or with friends," she says. "But now I really believe there is a pan-Hellenic attitude of civic duty growing."
In a little over a month, 1,000 different reports of bribery appeared on the site, spurred on by chatter on social media sites.
"People are frustrated, they're angry, they feel cheated, they feel abused. They feel they have been threatened by a system that has rendered them powerless in front of it."
Anger has been spurred on by the severity of the financial crisis and the impact it has had on people's lives. Over a quarter of Greeks are unemployed. Many can no longer afford the relatively small-scale bribes which were previously accepted as a way of life.
Horror stories abound on the website - 60% of the entries relate to corruption in the public health system, 15% to bribes paid to obtain driving licences, and 4% to the issuing of building permits. Entries are also broken down by region of Greece, and often individual institutions are named, so there are many clues for authorities to follow if they wish.
One person wrote:
"My father had cancer and had to have an operation on his pancreas. The surgeon asked indirectly for money, and before surgery I put 500 euros on his desk. From his expression I could see it wasn't enough. My mother insisted that we pay him more. Oh, and there was something else too! My father noticed all the expensive houses across the road from the hospital, and the nurse told him they were the doctors' houses. "You know what we call them?" The nurse said, 'Bribe Ville'."
Concern about corruption has risen as the Greek economy worsens. Last month, Transparency International's annual international survey of public perception of corruption found that the situation in Greece has deteriorated further. Greece has slipped from 80th to 94th place in the last year, making it the most corrupt country in Europe in terms of people's perceptions.
One of the biggest areas of concern is over corruption in the tax system. Tax evasion is known to be endemic in Greece, and is one of the areas the European Commission is pressing the government to improve. One of the latest scandals was over the failure by Greece to investigate the so-called "Lagarde List" of 2,000 Greeks with Swiss bank accounts.
However, there are relatively few cases of tax evasion reported on whistleblowing websites like edosafakelaki. Only 3% of entries here relate to tax. The website's founder believes this is because bribing a tax inspector is only likely to happen when someone is trying to evade tax, making them unlikely to want to tell people about it, even anonymously. It is an obvious drawback of any self-reporting system.
Diomidis Spinellis became well known in Greece when he resigned last year as general secretary of information systems at the Greek ministry of finance. His job was to modernise data collection for the outdated tax system. He said he was successful at recovering an extra 700m euros in taxes by cross-checking evidence from different databases. However, he resigned in frustration at the government's unwillingness to reform the system.
After stepping down, he spoke publicly about corrupt tax inspectors and how difficult it was to therefore channel tax owed into the state coffers.
He has since returned to academia, and is a professor in computer science at the Athens University of Economics and Business. He too has established a website for reporting corruption.
"It's important to share the experiences and create a perception that this is not something acceptable and it is something we want to fight," he says.
"The sad fact is that corruption seems to be targeting the most vulnerable members of society, so people who are less informed, who know less about their access to public services, who have less education, who don't know the tax code. They get blackmailed by the people who are supposed to serve them and this is very sad."
However, he is sanguine about what cultural changes corruption reporting websites can achieve. He believes the only way fundamental change can happen is by complete reform of tax collection and public services.
"Just reporting incidents is not enough," he said. "We have evidence, for instance, that accountants are complicit in running most of these schemes and they're very reluctant to report them because they don't want to tarnish their relationship with corrupt tax auditors."
The BBC showed two officials from the union which represents tax inspectors some of the entries relating to tax evasion on the edosafakelaki website.
"All these people," says Vallia Christakopoulo, gesturing at the website. "Why did they give this money? Why didn't they go to the police? Maybe they wanted to cover up something."
Asked if it was true that many tax inspectors accepted bribes to cover up tax evasion, she admitted that it happened, but said it was only in a small minority of cases.
Kristina Tremonti, who established edosafakelaki, believes that a popular groundswell of opinion against bribery can make a big difference to Greece in its present predicament.
"Rooting out corruption will allow for social and economic recovery. I cannot stress this enough. We can make our country more fertile for growth by taking out the weeds which hinder it - and corruption is a weed."
It's the simplest austerity measure that can be implemented by the people, she says.
"Greek people are ready for change, and they feel they can no longer expect a lead for change only from their elected officials.
"The Greek people have realised that in order to revive themselves as a society they have to tap into their most powerful and unexplored asset which in this case is themselves."