BERN — In a move reminiscent of the J. Edgar Hoover era in the United States, wiretapping seems to have become a popular sport for Carla Del Ponte, Switzerland's attorney general.
In what Mrs. Del Ponte's office says was an attempt to plug government leaks, the phones of several Swiss journalists were tapped. But rather than stop the information pipeline, the attorney general's efforts appear to have backfired.
For the first time in 150 years, new laws will likely be put on the books that will protect Swiss journalists. "Journalists don't have enough rights here," says Barbara Haberger, president of the Swiss Syndicate of Mass Media.
"We need to get source protection for journalists and the right to refuse to testify" in court, Ms. Haberger says.
With pressure from the press and public, the National Council will consider a law this month that will allow journalists to protect their sources, grant them the right to refuse to testify in court, and not allow journalists to be prosecuted under Article 293 of the penal code for publication of official secrets.
Unfortunately, the new law may not help the journalists whose phones were tapped. One Bern news weekly, Facts, found itself under phone surveillance for four months after publishing a letter written by Swiss Interior Minister Ruth Dreifuss that criticized certain reform projects of Defense Minister Adolf Ogi.
Another daily based in Bern, Der Bund, was monitored after publishing an article about confidential meetings between Swiss federal councilors and ministers of the European Union.
And earlier this month, two journalists and a photographer were arrested for being on the scene of a police raid. The film was seized as evidence, and the journalists will likely have to appear in court and testify about what they saw since the courts view them as potential witnesses to a possible crime as well as for being on the scene of a secret raid.
According the existing laws, "every time secret matters are published, the attorney general may persecute the persons who have given the information as well as those who published it," says Roger Blum, a professor and specialist in media affairs at the University of Bern. "However, it's clear that this can't continue. A democracy must be open."
In the Facts and Der Bund incidents, whether the journalists violated the official secrets act still must be determined, Del Ponte said in a written statement to the Monitor. If they did, the journalists could face fines or jail time.
THE attorney general's office also says that in the two investigations, phone surveillance was the only means possible to discover the leaks and only in one case were conversations recorded. In both cases, she obtained permission from the Swiss Federal Tribunal to carry out the phone tapping.
"Freedom of the press is a very important constitutional right in Switzerland," she said in her written statement. "But this right, too, can be restricted by the legislature if important goals of public interest demand it."
Despite calling Del Ponte's phone-tapping exercise excessive, Swiss President Arnold Koller and his political party, the Christian Democrats, are supporting the attorney general's this-hurts-me-more-than-it-hurts-you attitude against the journalists.
"Perhaps it makes journalists worried," says Raymond Loretan, secretary-general of the Christian Democratic Party, one of the four major Swiss political parties. "But the tapping wasn't against them, it was more against whoever in the administration was doing the leaking."