Bankers Support Switzerland’s Decision not Change Banking Secrecy Law

Published: 11 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

Swiss bankers defended on Tuesday the decision of a parliamentary commission not to strike down the controversial article 47 from the country’s banking secrecy law that has been criticized by the UN, journalists and human rights advocates as violating press freedom.

After meeting last week to deliberate the subject, Swiss lawmakers chose not to touch the article of the Federal Act on Banks and Savings Banks that prescribes a prison sentence of up to three years and a fine for whoever discloses confidential banking information about a Swiss bank’s client.

“From the point of view of the majority of the Commission, there is no need for legislative action because Swiss banks have made great progress over the past few years in terms of preventing money laundering and other white-collar crime and complying with international standards,” a Swiss Parliament statement said.

It noted that so far nobody has ever been prosecuted under this law.

However, the law has effectively muzzled local whistleblowers and has prevented local journalists from participating in a recent international investigation that revealed some dubious clients of Credit Suisse.

But it did not scare the 164 foreign reporters who combed through leaked account data from Switzerland’s second-largest bank, revealing that war criminals, drug traffickers, their money launderers and other criminals were keeping their money there.

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 last week.

“This is normally a problem in authoritarian states,” she added.

That was not the intention when the amendment to the law was passed, Andreas Barfuss, Head of Legal & Compliance from the Swiss Bankers Association told on Tuesday KleinReport, a trade magazine covering the Swiss Communications industry.

“The parliamentary initiative from 2014 [article 47] was not about restricting press freedom, but about punishing the sale of bank customer data. They wanted to put a stop to the trade in stolen bank data and the handling of stolen data,” he said, explaining that when data is stolen, there is no guarantee that innocent, respectable people won’t be affected.

Regardless of its origin, its effect on Swiss journalism has been profound.

“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,” Khan said.

She plans to bring the issue before the UN General Assembly in June and after Friday’s decision by the Parliamentary Commission, Reporters Without Borders raised the idea of elevating it to the European Court of Human Rights.

“We deplore this decision, but we do not lose hope that other parliamentary interventions will eventually change the lines.” Denis Masmejan, the secretary general of Reporters Without Borders Switzerland, told the Guardian. “The application of article 47 to the media is absurd and incompatible with the freedom of the press … It will have to be corrected in one way or another,” he added.