Credit Suisse Dictates How Swiss Federal Prosecutor Responds to Journalist

Published: 26 February 2023

Credit Suisse ZurichThe Crédit Suisse headquarters in Zurich. (Photo: Wally Gobetz, Flickr, License)

By Henry Pope

When a journalist asked the Swiss Federal Prosecutor’s office in January if any investigations had been launched after an insider revealed that Credit Suisse was servicing some of the world’s shadiest characters, the office first reached out to the bank for advice on how to frame its answer.

The truth was that prosecutors were building a case, but not against the bank for being a safe haven for criminal finances. They were after the whistleblower behind the Suisse Secrets leak.

A Paper Trail Media and Tamedia investigation uncovered that, after the inquiry of a reporter from Ticino, the Swiss Federal Prosecutor’s office first emailed its planned response to the Credit Suisse press department, asking for any “feedback” the bank’s media team might have.

That’s when the editing back and forth started between the bank and the prosecutors.

The office had submitted in October a formal request to the Federal Department of Justice and to the police for their blessing to investigate the whistleblower for crimes of economic espionage.

Prosecutors were acting on an official complaint submitted by Credit Suisse, but the bank wanted to keep this little tidbit of information secret. It thus demanded that any mention of the bank in its reply to the journalist be omitted.

When the prosecutor’s office initially hesitated to comply, the bank reportedly said it would hire a law firm to intervene if necessary. Ultimately, Switzerland’s top prosecutor conceded and simply informed the journalist that an investigation against the whistleblower for economic espionage had been opened, leaving Credit Suisse out of the statement.

Switzerland is renowned for enforcing perhaps the world’s strictest banking privacy laws.

They even defy the freedom of the press, in that journalists are not permitted to report on banking data that exposes criminal behavior of urgent public interest, such as money laundering and tax evasion.

The country’s airtight banking privacy laws have long permitted Credit Suisse to do business with characters like a Venezuelan oil executive who looted roughly US$11 billion from the industry via fraud, bribery, and currency scams. Or a Tajikistan state official, whom the U.S. dubbed a “mafia kingpin”.

Since as far back as the 1940s, Credit Suisse has welcomed such clients knowing that the law will keep them safe; In Switzerland, any publication of confidential banking data, even in cases that expose criminal behavior, can lead to prosecution and imprisonment.

This is why Swiss media outlets such as Tamedia could not participate in the investigation; the legal risks were simply too high.

“Switzerland simply does not respect European legal standards on freedom of expression and freedom of the press,” General Secretary of the European Federation of Journalists Ricardo Gutiérrez said following Suisse Secrets’ release. “This practice is worthy of the worst authoritarian states. It must be stopped.”

In defense of its correspondence with Credit Suisse, a spokesperson for the Federal Prosecutor’s Office stated that the office holds complete sovereignty over its communication procedures. However, the statement also mentioned that it is necessary to “weigh up the personal rights of those affected and the goal of maximum transparency.”

Maximum transparency, it seems, is a one-way street in the Swiss legal system; something that Swiss criminal law expert David Zollinger considers problematic.

A former member of the supervisory authority over the office of the Swiss prosecutor for six years, he shared his concerns that “editing media responses for the Federal Prosecutor’s Office is definitely not part of CS’s [Credit Suisse’s] procedural role in this process.”

It therefore puts the federal prosecutor in a delicate position, Zollinger said, that not only was the media inquiry forwarded to the bank to begin with, but that they also ultimately submitted to their demands.