September 19, 2014 / 6:09 PM / 3 years ago

Switzerland prepares to tighten screws on whistleblowers

GENEVA (Reuters) - Switzerland’s parliament will consider a bill on Monday that critics say will tighten the rules on whistleblowers, shutting the door to what is often a last resort for people trying to stop wrongdoing and corruption.

Although the bill aims to clarify a grey area of the law, it will effectively outlaw whistleblowing unless Swiss authorities -- renowned worldwide as a model of efficiency -- fail to follow correct procedures.

“It’s weakening the whistleblower’s protection,” said Rudolf Elmer, a former Julius Baer private banker charged by Swiss authorities in July with handing confidential data to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and trying to pass files to German officials.

“It allows Switzerland to say we do have a whistleblower law but as a matter of fact the entire thing is cynical,” he said. “It’s taking away the space for a judge to say you acted in good faith. From that point of view it’s getting more strict.”

Swiss law emphasizes the duty of loyalty that employees have to their employers, and the draft law says that would-be whistleblowers must first report wrongdoings to the employer in the first instance, and then take them to the authorities.

Any response from the authorities -- even a decision not to investigate -- would nullify an whistleblower’s right to go to the media, said Zora Ledergerber, owner of Integrity Line LLC, which advises companies on internal reporting systems.

“This is really strange because it doesn’t really matter whether it’s a serious problem, life threatening or not -- the criteria for whether you can go to the media depends on whether you receive an answer from the public authorities about the status of their investigation,” she said.

The law rested on Swiss confidence that the authorities would handle things correctly, she said, even though it had taken a whistleblower’s anonymous tip to a newspaper to spark a recent corruption investigation into suspicious business dealings at the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs.

Elmer said Switzerland’s tough stance on whistleblowers -- whose careers can be destroyed once they have been labeled as “disloyal” to an employer -- went hand in hand with its traditional banking secrecy, which would have been jeopardized by allowing secrets to leak out.

Whistleblowers have been key players in Switzerland’s fight with the United States over decades of tax evasion by U.S. citizens with money stashed in secret Swiss accounts.

While Switzerland has decried their disloyalty, it has suggested it could give safe passage to the top U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden, whose leaks blew the lid off secret electronic surveillance programs.

The OECD, which has cracked down on tax havens and tax evasion worldwide, might put pressure on Switzerland to open up to whistleblowers, Elmer said.

The Council of Europe, of which Switzerland is a member, developed a legal recommendation in April that states should have a legal framework in place to protect them and to facilitate public disclosures of information.

Ledergerber said she was astonished by the silence in the Swiss press on the issue.

“The media in Switzerland should be the ones that are crying out loud,” she said. “They would not be allowed to receive anonymous whistleblower tips.”

Editing by Dominic Evans

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