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February 21, 2022updated 30 Sep 2022 11:03am

Suisse Secrets: Swiss outlets ‘censored’ as 47 news orgs investigate bank accounts data leak

By Charlotte Tobitt

Switzerland-based news organisations were excluded from the Suisse Secrets investigation into Credit Suisse’s banking practices over fears of punitive legal punishment.

The Suisse Secrets investigation by 47 media outlets around the world revealed allegations of clients involved in torture, drug trafficking, money laundering and corruption.

The bank said it “strongly rejects the allegations and inferences about the bank’s purported business practices”, that they are mostly historical, and that the reports “are based on partial, selective information taken out of context, resulting in tendentious interpretations of the bank’s business conduct”.

The Credit Suisse banking data was given to German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung by an anonymous source, who sent it in an encrypted format to Panama and Paradise Papers investigative journalists Frederik Obermaier and Bastian Obermayer, more than a year ago.

The paper then shared it with the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project and more than 160 journalists from 47 media outlets, including The Guardian, Le Monde, The New York Times and the Miami Herald.

The leak is the biggest ever from a Swiss bank with information on more than 18,000 Credit Suisse accounts and 30,000 account holders.

But Swiss news organisations were not included in the investigation to protect them from the vague wording of a banking secrecy law – Article 47 of the country’s 1934 Banking Act – that, it was feared, could have led to journalists in Switzerland being prosecuted for exposing wrongdoing by a Swiss bank or client.

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The Guardian’s head of investigations Paul Lewis wrote: “While far-fetched, the possibility that Switzerland’s prosecutors might use its banking secrecy statute to criminalise journalists led to the decision to protect Swiss media outlets from such a scenario by excluding them from the consortium investigating the leaked data.”

Arthur Rutishauser, editor-in-chief of Swiss media company Tamedia, said in an op-ed: “The fact that bank data is being leaked in foreign media today, while there is a ban on research in Switzerland, is an absurdity that must be abolished.”

The Social Democratic Party of Switzerland is now planning to submit a proposal to abolish what one of its politicians described as the “censorship” Article 47 in the country’s spring parliamentary session.

Lewis said the law, which states anyone who “discloses information about bank customers to other people” can be imprisoned for up to three years even if there is a public interest justification, was also a consideration for non-Swiss publications such as The Guardian but “a less direct one”.

Other considerations included the public interest of publishing, and even reviewing, the banking details as it is not illegal to hold an offshore account as long as it is declared correctly.

However, as Lewis said: “…decades of scandals have made clear that Swiss banks generally – and Credit Suisse in particular – have attracted illicit funds from tax evaders, kleptocrats and money launderers. Financial crime is a serious issue of global public interest. When it involves corruption in the developing world, the impact on the world’s poorest can be profound…

“Months of painstaking reporting have unearthed evidence that Credit Suisse had clients involved in torture, drug trafficking, money laundering and corruption. Some were allowed to open bank accounts years after they had been convicted for serious financial crimes.

“In other cases, the data raises questions about unexplained wealth, or whether Credit Suisse asked basic questions about the origin of a client’s funds.

“Deciding to publish these stories has been a balancing exercise. On one side: personal issues of privacy, confidentiality and data protection, and a Swiss banking secrecy law that could be used to censor reporting. On the other: the public’s right to know about wrongdoing. And our duty to reveal it.”

Similarly, the OOCRP acknowledged: “It is not a crime to open a Swiss bank account, and all journalists working on this project operated from that position. In responsible journalism, there is no justification for publishing private banking data without a compelling public interest.”

It said journalists had therefore spent months verifying the data and investigating Credit Suisse clients. “We pursued stories only when there was reason to suspect that clients were exploiting the Swiss banking system to nefarious ends,” it added. “Conservative editorial judgment was used, and hundreds of accounts that raised questions were not ultimately reported on.”

The Suisse Secrets investigation follows other collaborations such as last year’s Pandora Papers offshore firms investigation, thought to have been the biggest collaboration in journalism history with more than 600 journalists from 150 media outlets in 117 countries taking part co-ordinated by the US-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

Just over two months earlier, the Pegasus Project looked at hacking software developed by the NSO Group.

Lewis told Press Gazette last year collaborations like this were “hugely complex and challenging” but gained a lot by journalists working together: “How else could you get 600 journalists working on one project – all focusing on different threads all over the world, but all working in partnership and pulling the same direction?

“This kind of collaborative reporting has been ongoing for several years now so I don’t think we can call it new. But it is evolving, becoming more sophisticated – and increasingly it is delivering stories that have a truly global impact.”

Similarly James Oliver, who produced and directed the BBC Panorama films on the Pandora Papers, told Press Gazette collaboration meant “far more” stories could be found and produced than would otherwise have been possible: “It shows how amazingly powerful it can be and how we’re all learning that working together, not just across borders but also with other teams from notional competitors, is not only effective, but maximises impact.”

Picture: Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

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