Jan 20 2011

On Rudolf Elmer’s re-arrest

Posted by: Nick Shaxson in: Thoughts

Last night I learned that the Swiss whistleblower Rudolf Elmer, who handed over a couple of potentially explosive CDs to Wikileaks’ Julian Assange on Monday, was re-arrested almost immediately after finishing a trial (and conviction, and mild sentence) for breaking banking secrecy.

I spent quite some hours with Elmer while researching the book, and my personal feeling, though I have no way of knowing all the facts of his case, is that he is a brave, if complex individual who has a whole lot of interesting (and well-informed) stuff to say. He readily admitted to me, while we talked, that he had made mistakes, saying that he went through a period of intense personal pressure (you can get an inkling of the kinds of pressure he was put under, from the Guardian serial) where he kind of went crazy, and did some rash things. His month-long stint in prison in 2005, he said, turned out to be the most relaxing time he had had in some time.

Elmer’s image has been comprehensively (though not uniformly) trashed in the Swiss media. Many Swiss media outlets have focused very heavily on his shortcomings as an individual, rather than on his actions – the whistleblowing – the real story.

The Swiss media is free enough, in general terms, and contains plenty of criticism of Swiss banks and even Swiss banking secrecy. But this Elmer coverage fits a pattern that I note again and again in tax havens, where the media tends to be turned to favour the offshore sector. The FT notes (which, I have to say, has occasionally taken a rather lenient view towards the appalling criminality at the heart of Swiss financial secrecy) notes the contrast between the Swiss coverage and the foreign coverage of this story:

The Swiss media has paid little attention to his latest claims, amid additional scepticism about the relevance of any material given the gap that has passed since he left the bank.  By contrast, foreign publications have latched onto his latest claims, potentially spurred by his planned use of Wikileaks to publicise his position.

I should note, again, that we shouldn’t talk in general terms about Switzerland – there is a large section of the population that wants nothing to do with dirty money and secrecy. And, as I’ve said, the Swiss media contains many and various views. Still, I find the disconnect between the overall tone in the Swiss media, and the foreign coverage, a little troubling.

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