UN Rapporteur: Swiss Banking Laws Curtail Free Speech

Published: 04 May 2022

Credit Suisse ZürichUnder Article 47, those who report on Swiss banks’ customer data could be liable for up to three years in prison and a hefty fine. (Photo: Thomas Wolf, Wikimedia, License)

By David Klein

A Swiss parliament committee will discuss on Thursday a provision of the country’s controversial banking secrecy law that has effectively muzzled 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 Act on Banks and Savings Banks’ prescribes a prison sentence of up to three years and a fine for whoever discloses confidential information about a client.

This did not scare the 164 foreign reporters 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 lord and the children of a brutal Azerbaijani strongman.

But no Swiss reporters 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 at all stopped many reporters from even getting their stories off the ground.

The article has “a chilling effect and leads journalists to self-censor. This is prior-censorship, that is, censoring the media before they can even investigate or publish,” the United Nations special rapporteur for freedom of opinion and expression, Irene Khan, told Tamedia and Der Spiegel.

“This is normally a problem in authoritarian states,” she added. “The [Credit Suisse] data show that bank clients were involved in numerous crimes: From corruption and bribery to drug and human trafficking. There is a public interest in knowing about possible financial crimes.”

Hours after the Suisse Secrets investigation was published in February, Samira Marti, a politician from the Social Democratic Party of Switzerland called for the abolition of the article and urged other parties to support the idea.

“Censorship article prohibits Swiss media from uncovering tax crimes. That needs to change,” she tweeted.

Khan wrote a letter to the Swiss government at the beginning of March, reminding that the article contradicts the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights. The two conventions guarantee freedom of expression and freedom of the press and Switzerland has signed both, she said.

Two months later, the issue is on the table and Thursday’s discussion might produce a proposal to scrap the article.

If not, Khan plans to bring the issue up with the UN’s 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. It must also act,” she said.