Swiss press freedom in the spotlight at the United Nations
The United Nations Human Rights Council points the finger at the Swiss media law. Current legislation protects the banking sector from whistleblowers in the banking sector.
This content was published on June 23, 2022 – 09:00
Long underlining the importance of freedom of expression at international gatherings, Switzerland must react to the criticisms of the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression, Irene Khan.
In a reportExternal link which will be presented to the council on June 24, she attacks a Swiss law which criminalizes journalists who publish information about whistleblowers in the banking sector.
The Human Rights Council is an intergovernmental body within the United Nations responsible for the promotion and protection of all human rights. It meets twice a year in Geneva. The current session ends on July 8.
“The effect of [Swiss] appears to be to hamper investigative journalism, stifle legitimate reporting on alleged financial crimes, and dampen Swiss media interest,” the report, already available online, reads.
In March, Khan sent a four-page letterExternal link to the Swiss Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ignazio Cassis, stating that while Swiss law generally allowed exceptions for the publication of sensitive information when it is of public interest, the Federal Banking Law – which provides for up to five years imprisonment or a fine of up to CHF 250,000 ($260,000) for violations – does not include an exception for news articles or whistleblowers. She underlined the public interest in publishing information relating to human rights violations, environmental damage, corruption and abuse of public office.
The surge of international interest in the law’s implications for journalists began after it was revealed that Switzerland’s largest media group, Tamedia, which includes newspapers such as Tages-Anzeiger, SonntagsZeitung and Geneva stand, declined to participate in a global media surveyExternal link based on data disclosed by Credit Suisse. The report, known as Suisse Secrets, showed how the banking giant had maintained accounts with a number of corrupt individuals, criminals and those responsible for human rights abuses in their country.
Account holders included a Yemeni security chief accused of torture, Venezuelan bureaucrats laundering public revenue amid the country’s descent into humanitarian crisis and an Italian accused of laundering funds for the mafia.
The probe, led by the German Suddeutsche Zeitung and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, involved dozens of global news outlets, but not a single Swiss outlet. The risk of costly lawsuits and an increasingly strained financial environment have recently left Swiss news organizations less inclined to take reporting risks.
Industry experts say the decision to 24 hours, Tamedia’s most popular newspaper in the canton of Vaud, in French-speaking Switzerland, not participating in the Credit Suisse investigation was motivated by fear.
“It sends the wrong signal to banks, who may feel empowered by the decision. It would have been interesting if 24 hours had published”, explains Etienne Coquoz, general secretary of Impressum, a Swiss association of journalists.
Green Party parliamentarian Raphaël Mahaim agrees. For him, the banking law “gives the impression that Switzerland is trying to protect its banks”, he told SWI swissinfo.ch.
The banking law, which dates from 1934 and has been revised several times, enshrines banking secrecy in Switzerland, which is already firmly rooted in tradition and cantonal laws.
Home to many multinationals and large banks that have long attracted wealth from around the world, the Swiss corporate sector regularly comes under fire from journalists seeking greater transparency in supply chains and any connection to individuals. shady.
But despite attempts to sanction bank secrecy, including by former finance minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, as well as the government signing agreements with the US and EU to release customer information to their tax authorities, Parliament has repeatedly rejectedExternal link such movements.
“It is very important that the work of investigative journalists who report wrongdoing – whether it is wrongdoing by the state or the private sector – is not hindered in any way,” a doorman said. -speaker of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. to a question from SWI swissinfo.ch during a recent UN briefing on Swiss legislation.
A follow-up email from the UN office pointed out that “freedom of expression is enshrined in Article 16 of the Swiss Federal Constitution and in treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). and the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Switzerland is a party.”
In 2022, Switzerland fell four places and ranks 14th in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index.External link.
To date, enforcement of the Federal Banking Act against journalists reporting whistleblower activity has not occurred.
Freedom or censorship in the hands of legislators
“Let’s tackle this problem one step at a time,” Jürg Lauber, Switzerland’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, told SWI swissinfo.ch ahead of the 50th session of the Human Rights Council.e session. “Freedom of the press is a priority for Switzerland. If there is a weak point [in the law], we have to ask ourselves if we could improve it. I understand that the relevant legislative process has already begun.
During the March parliamentary session, Mahaim presented an initiative to correct the article of the banking law criticized by the UN rapporteur and to bring it into line with the fundamental right to freedom of the press.
Parliamentary discussions on the initiative should “take their course” within the chambers and include deliberations in committee, before finding a compromise, he explained.
“It is not acceptable that Switzerland has an article that prevents journalists from doing their job,” Mahaim said.
Some journalists fear that the war in Ukraine, which began just days after the publication of Swiss Secrets, has diverted attention from calls to change the law.
“The war came and there were other stories to deal with,” Coquoz said.
Parliamentary discussions on Green Party initiatives are expected to be lengthy, following a required administrative process. The law could take months or even years to amend.
Right-wing parliamentarians have expressed concern over any changes to the law. “Legislating in haste means punishing the entire Swiss financial center for the actions of a single bank, since I expect all banks to respect Swiss law,” said Olivier Feller, whose the center-right Radical-Liberal Party pleaded for a hardening. of the banking law in 2015.
Recent changes to media legislation show that Switzerland will be able to tip the scales in favor of companies even more easily.
A change in May to the code of civil procedure, which includes a provision allowing for accelerated media censorship, still poses additional challenges for Swiss journalists. The purpose of the law is to protect individuals and businesses from online accusations. But opponents see it as a way to financially weaken the media. Section 266 of the code now allows a judge to ban the publication of an article if the content is deemed to cause harm to a person or business, a procedure known as SLAPP (strategic lawsuits against the participation of the audience).
The mechanism is one that journalists are already familiar with.
François Pilet, co-founder of Digital Outlet Gotham Citywho has been hit with heavy legal fees over his coverage of white-collar crime, feared there was little political will to prevent such measures from being approved.
“I don’t understand the need today to create rules that make it even harder for journalists to do their job,” he said. “Do we live in a country overwhelmed with fake news? No, I do not think so. This will have consequences… and the only precaution for the media may be to decide not to publish articles that may be too embarrassing” for certain individuals and companies.
In response to the latest legal change, Mahaim followed up with another initiative in parliament asking lawmakers to consider lawsuit legislation to censor or silence critics, similar to that in the European Union. A current EU proposal provides for economic fines against parties who use the mechanism to prevent the publication of an article.
On June 10, Impressum called on the government and parliament to reverse these trends by strengthening press freedom.
Complies with JTI standards
Find out more: SWI swissinfo.ch certified by the Journalism Trust Initiative