No need to boost Switzerland’s press freedoms: parliamentary committee

A Swiss parliamentary committee on Friday rejected calls to overhaul banking secrecy rules that critics warn stifle free speech in the country.

A sign of Switzerland's second largest bank Credit Suisse on a branch's building next to a Swiss flag in downtown Geneva.
A sign of Switzerland's second largest bank Credit Suisse on a branch's building next to a Swiss flag in downtown Geneva. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP.

Switzerland’s commitment to press freedom has been questioned since it was revealed that no Swiss media had dared participate in an international media investigation into the dealings of Credit Suisse.

The vast “Suisse Secrets” investigation by dozens of media organisations from around the world claimed in February that leaked data revealed how Switzerland’s second largest bank held more than $8 billion in accounts of criminals, dictators and rights abusers.

Credit Suisse flatly rejected the “allegations and insinuations” in the probe.

While the investigation focused on the bank’s alleged handling of dirty money, it also shone a spotlight on Article 47 of Switzerland’s Banking Act, which critics say has weakened media freedom in the country.

READ ALSO: ‘Swiss Secrets’: What would EU blacklisting mean for Switzerland?

Experts say the 2015 law, which made it a criminal offence to reveal leaked banking data punishable with up to five years in prison, effectively silences insiders or journalists who may want to expose wrongdoing within a Swiss bank.

Risk ‘too big’

So while 48 media companies from around the world participated in the Suisse Secrets investigation, no Swiss news media took part due to the risk of criminal prosecution.

“The judicial risk is simply too big,” the large Tamedia media group, which has taken part in previous international data leak investigations, acknowledged at the time.

The United Nations’ top expert on freedom of expression, Irene Kahn, wrote to the Swiss government in March to voice her concerns about the law.

“The Swiss banking law is an example of the criminalisation of journalism,” she said in an interview with the Tages-Anzeiger daily this week, warning that this could result in self-censorship.

Amid the criticism, the Economic Affairs and Taxation Committee of the Swiss parliament was asked to examine calls for an overhaul of the legislation.

After hearing arguments from the banking sector and from experts on financial crime and media rights, the committee members rejected the call to change the law, a parliamentary statement said Friday.

“The majority of the commission did not find it necessary to intervene at a legislative level,” it said.

The committee, which is tasked with discussing and providing recommendations on issues before they are debated in the full parliamentary chamber, highlighted the progress made by Swiss banks in recent years in addressing money laundering and other economic crimes.

Now, “they are in line with international standards,” the statement said.

It also cautioned that changing the law could result in “public accusations targeting individuals”, without providing further details. And the committee members stressed that “no journalist had ever been convicted until now by a court of violating Act 47”.

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Swiss bank boss who expensed strip club visits jailed

A former Swiss bank chief, accused of illegally pocketing millions and visiting strip clubs on company expenses, has been jailed for nearly four years, the ATS news agency reported Wednesday.

Swiss bank boss who expensed strip club visits jailed

A court in Zurich sentenced Pierin Vincenz, former head of the Raiffeisen Switzerland cooperative bank, to three years and nine months in prison for charges including fraud, breach of trust and “passive corruption”. Vincenz had already spent 106 days in pre-trial detention.

The other main defendant, Beat Stocker, former head of the credit card company Aduno, was sentenced to four years in prison at the end of a trial that included five other defendants.

In a 364-page indictment, the two former bankers were accused of influencing Raiffeisen, one of Switzerland’s largest banks, and other financial companies they managed and advised to buy companies in which they had taken private, undisclosed stakes.

The two defendants illegally pocketed 25 million Swiss francs ($26.8 million, 24.6 million euros) — nine million for Vincenz and 16 million for Stocker — the prosecution said.

Vincenz was also accused of having used his expense accounts for private outgoings, including 200,000 Swiss francs for visits to strip clubs and 250,000 francs for personal trips.

During this highly publicised trial, he justified these expenses by the need to maintain relations with his clients.

The court also charged him with breach of trust for other private expenses, including a romantic liaison which Vincenz had represented as a job interview.

At the end of his trial, Vincenz admitted mistakes during his 20 years at the bank, but claimed he had done nothing illegal. His defence team had called for an acquittal.

His lawyer had argued that Vincenz had not been involved at the bank with negotiations on the purchase of companies and indicated he would appeal the court’s decision, ATS reported.