Killing Free Speech in Switzerland

By Judith Bergman

Originally published by Gatestone Institute

The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) recently published its sixth monitoring report on Switzerland.

ECRI is the human rights monitoring body of the Council of Europe — not to be confused with the European Union. The Council of Europe calls itself the “continent’s leading human rights organization.”

ECRI was founded in 1994 by the heads of state of the Council of Europe with the mandate, among other things, to “review member States’ legislation, policies and other measures to combat racism, xenophobia, antisemitism and intolerance, and their effectiveness”.

The organization is composed of “members designated by their governments… on the basis of their in-depth knowledge in the field of combating intolerance”. They should have … expertise in dealing with racism… and intolerance. ECRI’s members are nominated in their personal capacity and act as independent members”.
ECRI’s monitoring of Switzerland, since its first report about the country was published in 1998, is an illustrative example of the organization’s persistent efforts — and considerable success — over the past two decades in limiting free speech in Europe.

Already in its first report, in 1998, ECRI, despite admitting that “a decrease in manifestations of racism and intolerance has been noted over the last 2-3 years” and that “overt manifestations of [racial prejudice and xenophobia] are rather rare,” told the Swiss media to promote specific narratives:

“It would seem necessary to make the mass media in Switzerland aware of their responsibilities concerning the problems of racism and intolerance …initiatives for combating racism and intolerance by the mass media (eg by presenting some positive cases of a fruitful co-existence between different groups)… are to be encouraged….Codes of conduct in the various media professions, whereby the media practices self-regulation, would seem most desirable”.

Two years later, in its second report on the country, the organization still conceded that, “open manifestations of racism are quite rare in Switzerland.” Nevertheless, ECRI was “concerned that a climate of intolerance or xenophobia towards non-citizens and those who are different from the native Swiss population appears to persist”. No substantial documentation was offered as basis for the allegation — ECRI even criticized in the same report that “little information is systematically collected in Switzerland regarding the extent of racism and discrimination” — but none seemed to be needed, as ECRI’s motivation appeared to be political:
“There still seems to lack [sic] an acceptance of Switzerland as a truly multi-cultural society whose members may feel a sense of Swiss identity alongside another cultural or ethnic identity”.

Throughout the years, ECRI has stressed the media’s central role in promoting specific, politicized agendas. In 2009, in its fourth report, the organization called for the introduction of what is by now a prevalent European practice, especially in Sweden, of not mentioning the ethnic origins of criminals:

“A widespread and recurring problem in the Swiss media is the practice of mentioning the origin of a person suspected or convicted of a criminal offence even when this information is irrelevant. With a concern for transparency, the police admittedly give the media ‘objective’ information on suspects, including their age and nationality, which the media pass on without always questioning its relevance. In some cases, however, this approach seems much harder to justify…”
By 2014, the concept of “hate speech” had found its way into ECRI’s fifth country report on Switzerland:

“Muslims, Black people, the Yenish and the Roma perceive a considerable deterioration of their situation and of the political climate. Refugees, cross-border workers and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) persons are also the targets of hate speech. In particular, the Democratic Union of the Centre (UDC) party, which remains the largest at federal level (scoring 26.6% of the vote in 2011), has continued to use extremely intolerant images and language…”
In the same report, the organization also addressed what it saw as insufficient judicial crackdowns on hate speech:

“ECRI considers that the authorities, in particular the prosecution services, should adopt a zero tolerance attitude in respect of all racist statements by politicians… The more freedom politicians are given to make racist statements with impunity, the fewer scruples members of the general public will have about making racist comments…”

Once again, ECRI focused on the media:

“ECRI recommends that the Swiss authorities develop an action plan in close cooperation with media representatives…to tackle the established routines … that can lead media coverage… to have a stigmatising effect on vulnerable groups, in particular Roma and people of colour…”

The organization, however, noted with satisfaction that its earlier recommendations had been followed:

“ECRI is pleased to note that a number of online newspapers have adopted self-regulatory measures, such as more systematic moderation of comments, abolition of anonymity for posters and the automatic closure of the accounts of persons who resort to racist discourse”.

On the other hand, ECRI was unhappy that “the follow-up given by the authorities to complaints concerning racist comments on the Internet was still inadequate”. It recommended that “the Swiss authorities give one or more police units… responsibility for actively combating hate speech on the Internet…”

ECRI’s curious battle to limit free speech, especially that of the media, continues. In its sixth and most recent country report on Switzerland, ECRI berated the media for focusing too much on news items such as the construction of minarets or radicalization, deeming it “intolerant discourse against Muslims”:

“ECRI… notes a sharp rise in intolerant discourse against Muslims particularly in the media. This is believed to be linked to legislation or legislative proposals that affect Muslims in particular… a study which was carried out by the University of Zurich from 2014-2017 on the quality of media coverage of Swiss Muslims in 18 print media outlets… noted that 25% of articles concerned religious symbols in the public space (such as the construction of minarets or wearing the headscarf or Burqa) and 21% concerned radicalisation, while only 2% reported on the daily life of Muslims and 2% covered successful integration… The reporting predominantly condemned a lack of will to integrate and a tendency to radicalisation among Muslims and called for more controls and sanctions. Another study …showed that 85% of Muslim respondents experienced the representation of Islam in the media as rather or very negative. Further, 88% were particularly clear on the responsibility of the media for the deteriorated attitude of non-Muslims towards Muslims”.

The organization said that:

“… states should raise awareness of the dangers posed by hate speech… by combating misinformation, negative stereotyping and stigmatisation; developing educational programmes for children and youth, public officials and the general public; supporting NGOs and equality bodies working to combat hate speech; and encouraging speedy reactions by public figures to hate speech”.

The organization emphasized self-regulation as the “appropriate” approach to “tackling hate speech” especially through the application of “codes of conduct”, and even regulation in some cases, which they believe should apply to both politicians and the media:
“ECRI considers that the use of self-regulation can be an appropriate and effective approach to tackling hate speech…. parliaments, political parties, business organisations, cultural and sport associations… should make it clear that the use of hate speech…is unacceptable and take action to prevent and sanction such use. ECRI specifically stresses the importance of codes of conduct in self-regulatory schemes…political leaders and members of parliament should… adopt relevant codes of conduct. Regarding the media and Internet, where the vast majority of hate speech is generated… ECRI recommends both regulation and self-regulation…”

ECRI noted that Swiss journalists already have a code in place that states that they “must avoid any allusion by text, image or sound to a person’s ethnic or national origin, religion, gender, sexual orientation as well as to any illness or physical or mental handicap that could be discriminatory in character.”

As for the Internet, ECRI noted that Swiss authorities had informed the organization that they were “seeking cooperation with relevant Internet service providers to improve the identification of authors of hate speech and to have such content removed as quickly as possible…”

ECRI has done a good job helping Europeans kill free speech.

Judith Bergman, a columnist, lawyer and political analyst, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Gatestone Institute.

Leave a Reply