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Statistik und Wahrheit

‘Only with scientific evaluations that are independent and based on a very broad foundation can the necessary decision-making aids be made available to policymakers in the shortest possible time,’ said DAGStat Chairman Prof Dr Friede in connection with a current recommendation for a national strategy for the collection and processing of data.

‘Full transparency in data collection, full transparency in the models used and the analysis of the data sets as well as full transparency in the political decision-making processes are essential prerequisites for this.’ COVID-19 has revealed deficits at various levels, and there are also many reports of a loss of trust. A solid basis now urgently needs to be created for future crises.

But this time it's not about corona.

‘Apparently, the importance of correct statistics that are independent of political influence for democracy is not yet sufficiently recognised in Germany either.’

This quote comes from the January 2018 unstatistics on the case of Greek statistician Andreas Georgiou. Several Nobel Prize winners and forty statistics organisations had signed a letter of protest calling for the proceedings against Georgiou to be dropped. However, while ‘alternative facts’ was named the bad word of the year in Germany and countless talk shows reported on ‘fake news’, while politicians passed laws to restrict its dissemination, the state prosecution of a statistician who publishes correct figures was largely ignored in Germany.

Andreas Georgiou sentenced for honesty

Greece: Andreas Georgiou corrected the national deficit from 3.9 to 15.4 per cent - and has now been given two years' probation.

Can one be sentenced for honesty?

In the case of Andreas Georgiou, this is probably exactly what happened - and the case is far from over. The American Statistical Association (ASA) wrote in a press release a few days ago that it was ‘deeply concerned that a false narrative has damaged the scientific integrity of a highly respected paper dealing with Greece's problematic fiscal statistical reporting from the 2000s’.

Andreas Georgiou moved from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to the Greek statistics authority ELSTAT in August 2010 and took over its management. The background to this was the demand from the eurozone countries that Greece provide accurate statistics so that financial aid could be provided to overcome the debt crisis. Georgiou was tasked with ensuring that EU rules on the production of official statistics were fully implemented and that ELSTAT could operate independently of the government and according to the principles of data ethics. The statistics he provided and the underlying methodology have been reviewed and accepted by the European statistical authority Eurostat a total of 21 times at six-monthly intervals since 2010.

Nevertheless, Georgiou was charged three times for allegedly ‘inflating’ the budget deficit in 2009, forcing Greece to implement unnecessarily harsh austerity measures.

Despite all evidence to the contrary and despite strong international support, he has now been persecuted by the Greek judiciary for ten years. Among other things, he was sentenced to two years' probation because he did not obtain the approval of the then ELSTAT supervisory body (which was politically appointed) before reporting the revised budget figures to Eurostat. Such approval was not required under Greek statistical law or EU regulations:

ELSTAT should be independent and its director should act autonomously.

Finally, Georgiou was also convicted by the Court of Appeal for ‘defaming’ the then Director of the National Accounts Department of the Statistical Office.

The ASA writes: ‘Georgiou, Greece's loyal and highly capable chief statistician from 2010 to 2015, was unfairly scapegoated for the austerity measures introduced with EU and International Monetary Fund loans from the early 2010s to help Greece's then struggling economy. The persecution of a scientific government official who does his job with rigour and integrity to produce official statistics is deeply concerning. The American Statistical Association recommends that this injustice be recognised and remedied.’

News Listing

American Statistical Association President Robert Santos recently decried the Greek appeals court decision finding former Greek chief statistician Andreas Georgiou liable for slander with the following statement:

In September 2020, after 3 years of delay, the Court of Appeal heard Georgiou's appeal because he had been ordered by a civil court of first instance to compensate the plaintiff for ‘simple defamation’. This was because he had made truthful statements that probably unintentionally but inevitably damaged the reputation and honour of the plaintiff, the Director of National Accounts of the Statistical Office from 2006 to 2010:

Georgiou had issued a press release in 2014 defending the revised 2006 to 2009 government deficit and debt statistics produced by ELSTAT in 2010 under his supervision - this defence was inevitably accompanied by a statement that the earlier statistics were flawed. The press release was persistently attacked by large parts of the Greek political world and repeatedly investigated and prosecuted in court.

Clearly, ‘simple defamation’ in this case means that Georgiou told the truth, which he should not have said.

The appeals court upheld the decision of the trial court from August 2017, against which the defendant had appealed, which had sentenced him to pay damages to the plaintiff. The only change from the 2017 decision seems to be that Georgiou is not required to issue a "public apology" to the plaintiff by publishing large parts of the court ruling in the Kathimerini newspaper. This can also be interpreted as an attempt to avoid the public outrage that would follow such a publication both within and outside Greece.

In defending the deficit and debt statistics from 2009 in the year 2014, they had already been validated by Eurostat in eight semi-annual reviews. These confirmed that Georgiou had adhered to international statistical principles and Greek and EU laws.

Specifically, he complied with the UN Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics (Principle 4: "Statistical offices are entitled to comment on erroneous interpretation and misuse of statistics.") and the European Statistics Code of Practice (Principle 1.7: "The national statistical offices … publicly comment on statistical issues, including criticism and misuse of statistics, as they see fit."). Compliance with the European Statistics Code of Practice is required under the EU Statistics Act (Regulation 223) and the Greek Statistics Act (Law 3832). Georgiou also adhered to Greek Law 4051, which requires Greek officials to "defend [Greek official statistics] against all attempts to undermine their credibility."

In this case, not only the fate of a statistician is on the line.

It concerns the adherence to statistical principles in the various processes of creation and reporting, including support for official statistics. It also involves the incentive structures for Greek official statisticians now and in the long term. What happens in this case when it reaches the Greek Supreme Court will have implications in Greece and in the EU more broadly, both for the rule of law and human rights and for the solidity of policies that should be based on honest and reliable official statistics.


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