Islamophobic tweets and attacks against foreigners on Facebook, blogs, posters and TV - recent incidents involving politicians and party members have given food for thought as Switzerland prepares to appear before the Human Rights Council.
Over the past few months a number of alleged discrimination cases against foreigners and Muslims involving political figures or party members, mainly from the rightwing Swiss People’s Party, have hit the local headlines.
These include a racial discrimination case opened last month with the Zurich public prosecutor’s office against People’s Party parliamentarian Alfred Heer. He told a “Tele Züri” regional TV programme that young Tunisians were coming to Switzerland as asylum seekers “with the aim of becoming criminals”. Parliament is examining the case as Heer is claiming parliamentary immunity.
The same office is investigating Alexander Müller, a committee member from the Zurich branch of the rightwing party, who in June tweeted: “Maybe we need a new Kristallnacht … this time against the mosques”. Müller was later fired from his job, gave a public apology and resigned from the party.
A case is also being considered by Bern’s public prosecutor’s office against former People’s Party parliamentarian Ulrich Schlüer, one of the figures behind the infamous “black sheep” campaign, for alleged discriminatory remarks made in an internet article in July.
And further south the Lugano-based association Belticino wrote a letter to the House of Representatives president last month, backed by prominent political figures like former prosecutor Dick Marty, in protest at an anti-Muslim photo-montage on the Facebook page of Lorenzo Quadri, an MP with the populist Lega dei Ticinesi party. Quadri denies posting the photo, which has since disappeared.
According to the Federal Commission Against Racism, it is time for Switzerland to get tougher with politicians who make discriminatory remarks in public.
In its report submitted for Switzerland’s second Universal Periodic Review on October 29 in Geneva, the federal agency said migrants, foreign tourists and asylum seekers were “not accorded adequate protection from xenophobia and racism in certain areas of life”.
It said Swiss politicians could make xenophobic statements “to a large extent without fear of criminal sanctions”, which leaves Switzerland open to accusations that it tolerates racist views.
As well as the introduction of comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation, which the government and parliament reject, the commission is advocating a wider, stricter application of the existing article 261bis of the Penal Code for discrimination cases involving political players.
“The criminal code is well formulated, but it’s another question how it’s applied; racism as a political propaganda instrument is not dealt with adequately by the courts,” said the commission’s director Doris Angst.
The problem with political cases, said Angst, is that Swiss courts always tend to favour freedom of expression over racial discrimination.
Michele Galizia, head of the anti-racism service at the interior ministry, agreed, noting that this reflected Switzerland’s direct democracy and federalist political system.
“It’s true that there is a risk of verbal faux-pas but it is better to discuss openly even touchy questions, rather than let them smoulder on,” he commented.
It is clear that the more extensive use of social media and the internet by political figures has magnified problems and opinions, and forced parties to tighten up regulations.
“With social media people sometimes feel like they are in their local bar and can talk quite openly without thinking too much about the political implications,” said Galizia.
Hans Stutz, a Lucerne-based journalist who covers race and discrimination issues, insisted that the People’s Party, the biggest political party in Switzerland, had a problem controlling its rightwing faction, which had become more public through social media.
“The words and expressions used have not changed but now they are more public. I think as no one has been opposing these kinds of racist statements they have become more and more radical,” he added.
Following Müller’s tweet in June and anti-asylum seeker facebook comments by Solothurn member Beat Mosimann, the party published on its website and widely distributed an editorial condemning “intolerable” racist attitudes while warning of the risks of social media.
Oskar Freysinger, a People’s Party MP, went further in the online version of the free newspaper, 20 Minuten: “Party members should stop using social media as it’s far too dangerous.”
Martine Brunschwig-Graf, president of the Federal Commission Against Racism, came to its defence, saying these cases were “clearly not the official position of the party”.
“The People’s Party is not the only one that has people in its ranks who make discriminatory or racist remarks,” she noted.
She said she had contacted the party to fix a meeting in December to discuss anti-racism prevention measures and limits. Meetings with other political groupings will follow in 2013.