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Information overload Lack of transparency hampers Swiss press

Switzerland does well when it comes to the freedom of the press, with the media able to go about their work generally unhindered. But editors are being stifled by mountains of information provided by the public and private sector.

A few weeks ago, the village assembly in Grandcour, canton Vaud, decided to deliberate two financial transactions behind closed doors and away from journalists. Nothing extraordinary moneywise, but a situation that may seem a little strange in the age of social media and Wikileaks, where transparency has become a catch cry for many.

While such measures are allowed by the canton’s legislation, keeping a lid on discussions has to be in the public interest, which, as it turned out, was not the case.

“It’s not systematic, but there is still a tendency to want to discuss perhaps embarrassing matters without the prying eyes and ears of outsiders,” said Dominique von Burg, president of the Swiss Press Council.  

Before the introduction of federal freedom of information legislation in 2006, secrecy was the norm rather the exception for the nation’s public servants. Parliament turned that idea on its head forcing government services to justify why they should not communicate documents.

Ordinary citizens and not just journalists can request information from any federal authority. Most cantons also have similar legislation.

Von Burg says though that the situation is far from perfect.

“Even if we have laws on transparency, we haven’t moved on far enough from the principle of ‘everything is secret unless we publish it’,” he told swissinfo.ch. “Everything should be published unless it is considered secret for the right reason.”

The president of the press council believes more should be done to improve transparency in public services and legislation, citing canton Geneva as one example needing improvement.

“Nobody knows exactly how administrative documents are available for consultation,” he said. “It’s hard to request documents if you don’t know if they exist.”

Mediation

For Michel Schweri, a committee member of the Swiss section of the non-governmental organisation Reporters without Borders, the country’s laws on transparency aren’t always applied correctly. “They are still very recent though and officials are not necessarily used to applying them,” he added.

An impression confirmed by the Federal Data and Information Commissioner’s office. The office mediates in cases where requests are turned down by government services, but says its activities do not necessarily reflect total demands since it is not always notified of each one, problematic or not.

The provisional figures it does have show that demands for information doubled last year, as did requests for mediation, which topped 60. But due to a lack of staff, it was only able to complete 30 mediations, when it issues recommendations to federal services, usually urging them to provide more information.

According to the journalist-run, pro-transparency website Öffentlichkeitsgesetz.ch, refusals to reveal potential conflicts of interest, censorship of nuclear safety documents or the cost of copied data are just a few problems encountered by journalists when dealing with federal services and requiring mediation.

Information overload

However, there is another obstacle to transparency which has become more problematic in recent years for journalists – the sheer amount of information being handed to them by the public and private sectors.

“It’s clear there is more and more communication going on,” said von Burg. “It’s a systematic attempt to get good press and to keep journalists’ noses out of business they don’t want people to know about.”

“It’s a case of too much information on one side and not enough on the other. It’s not unique to Switzerland, but part of a wider trend.”

For Urs Thalmann, director of the Swiss journalists’ federation, Impressum, public relations – knowingly or not – is being confused with transparency.

“There are fewer journalists and more and more communication specialists working for the public and private sectors,” he told swissinfo.ch.

“There are good reasons to make sure that information is passed on correctly by journalists, but communication services have a different goal to those of the media. And journalists don’t have time to look into this pre-digested information.”

Old-fashioned reporting

Thalmann is not alone in highlighting the lack of time available to journalists nowadays.

Olivier Voirol, a sociologist at universities in Lausanne and Frankfurt, says the sheer mass of information makes it difficult to summarise and for editors to say something significant or even discuss the issues with all stakeholders.

“Instead of journalists investigating like they used to, they tend to neglect seeking out sources because they are submerged with information,” he pointed out. “That means some voices are shut out and that those who get to express themselves are those who master the communication channels.”

So what is the solution? Thalmann suggests turning back the clock and letting journalists spend more time on research and investigation, but he’s not optimistic about the outcome either.

“That’s the kind of journalism that no longer has financial backing,” he said. “The media either don’t have the money to do it or don’t want to invest the money that is needed.”

And he fears the situation won’t improve anytime soon either.

“For Switzerland’s big media groups, profit is their goal rather than the quality of the information they publish,” he warned. “And because there is not enough competition, there is no pressure to do otherwise.”

The county’s news publishers have said in the past they do want to defend quality journalism. However this will require the right conditions to ensure its economic viability, including improved copyright protection and better recognition of media training by the state.

Freedom of press ranking

1 Finland

- Norway

  

3 Estonia  

- Netherlands  

5 Austria  

6 Iceland  

- Luxembourg  

8 Switzerland

9 Cape Verde

10 Canada  

13 New Zealand  

15 Eire

16 Germany

22 Japan

28 Britain

30 Australia

38 France

42 South Africa

47 United States

61 Italy

(Source: Reporters without Borders)

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Freedom of information

Switzerland’s federal freedom of information legislation entered into force in 2006.

It guarantees access to official documents produced by the federal government, although this access can be restricted for security or privacy reasons for example. However, it is up to the authority to demonstrate that it is not in the public interest to reveal information.

Its scope does not include documents produced by cantonal or communal authorities. Most cantons have their own legislation, however eight half-cantons and cantons including Lucerne and Zug have yet to approve some form of law.

Businesses in Switzerland only give access to their archives on an ad hoc basis, and usually only for historical purposes.

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A constitutional right

Art. 17 Freedom of the media

1. Freedom of the press, radio and television and of other forms of dissemination of features and information by means of public telecommunications is guaranteed.

2. Censorship is prohibited.

3. The protection of sources is guaranteed.

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swissinfo.ch


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