Swiss banking laws restrict free speech
A Swiss parliamentary committee will discuss on Thursday a provision of the controversial bank secrecy law that has effectively prevented journalists and whistleblowers from revealing that war criminals, drug traffickers, their money launderers and Other criminals keep their ill-gotten funds in Swiss banks.
The infamous Article 47 of Switzerland’s “Federal Law on Banks and Savings Banks” provides for a prison sentence of up to three years and a fine for anyone who divulges confidential customer information.
That didn’t scare off the 164 foreign journalists who combed through leaked account data from Credit Suisse – Switzerland’s second-largest bank – revealing clients including an Algerian general accused of torture, a Serbian drug baron and the children of a brutal Azerbaijani strongman.
But no Swiss journalist took part in the investigation. All they could do was wish good luck to their colleagues abroad.
To Switzerland’s credit, no journalist has ever been prosecuted under Article 47, but having the law on the books has prevented many journalists from getting their stories off the ground.
The article has “a chilling effect and leads journalists to self-censorship. This is prior censorship, meaning censoring the media before they can even investigate or publish,” said UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Opinion and Expression, Irene Khan, to Tamedia and Der Spiegel.
“This is normally a problem in authoritarian states,” she added. “The [Credit Suisse] data shows that bank customers have been involved in many crimes: from corruption and bribery to drug and human trafficking. There is a public interest in being informed of possible financial crimes.
A few hours after the publication of the Swiss Secrets investigation in February, Samira Martina Swiss Social Democratic Party politician called for the article to be abolished and urged other parties to support the idea.
“An article on censorship prohibits the Swiss media from uncovering tax offences. This needs to change,” she tweeted.
Khan wrote a letter to the Swiss government in early March, recalling that the article contradicts the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights. Both conventions guarantee freedom of expression and freedom of the press and Switzerland has signed both, she said.
Two months later, the question is on the table and Thursday’s discussion could lead to a proposal to delete the article.
Otherwise, Khan plans to raise the issue before the UN human rights council in June. Switzerland actively participates in the work of the council and has repeatedly criticized the actions of other countries against journalists.
“That is why it is important that Switzerland now reacts itself and changes such a problematic law. Switzerland must not only preach. He must also act,” she said.