Government prosecution of journalists on the newspaper SonntagsBlick caused surprise, despite precedents, and highlighted the need to decriminalise press offences in a country where there is genuine press freedom.
The newspaper SonntagsBlick reported on 8 January that the CIA had secret prisons in Europe and reprinted a fax from the Egyptian foreign ministry on the subject. The Swiss government was in the dock and chose to challenge the paper in court. Criminal and military investigations were launched to find the journalists’ sources and SonntagsBlick editor Christoph Grenacher and two of his reporters, Sandro Brotz and Beat Jos, face up to five years in prison for refusing to reveal them.
Article 293 of the criminal code punishing “publication of secret official discussions” contradicts article 10 of the European Human Rights Convention and the European Court of Human Rights ruled against Switzerland on 25 April.
Among precedents for the government’s willingness to prosecute journalists was the conviction of Martin Stoll for writing in the weekly Sonntags-Zeitung in 1997 about Carlo Jagmetti, Swiss ambassador to the US.
Another was the case of Viktor Damman, legal columnist of the daily Blick, who was investigating a burglary of the Fraumünster post office in Zurich in September 1997 and an official of the public prosecutor’s office agreed to fax him information about people arrested during the enquiry. None of the information was published but he was prosecuted for “instigating violation of official secrets” and fined €325 because the court said the list of people arrested was secret.
However, the European Court said the information could easily have been obtained elsewhere and that the journalist was punished to dissuade him from investigating, which could prevent the media doing its job of informing people and monitoring situations. It awarded him damages of €3,244.