In December last year, Le News’ former editor, the Swiss-American journalist Edward Girardet, wrote an article entitled “Why the Swiss need to value their foreigners”. After being rejected by a number of Swiss newspapers, it was published by swissinfo.ch, part of Switzerland’s national broadcaster, before being taken down six hours later. Le News interviewed Edward yesterday to challenge some of the assertions he makes in his article and ask him what he thinks has changed since he wrote it one year ago. The original article and swissinfo.ch’s explanation for removing it follow the interview.
Le News: In your article you describe the Swiss communication authorities’ decision to take away the FM licence from World Radio Switzerland (WRS), a Swiss English-language radio station, as narrow-minded if not discriminatory. Can you explain why this is discriminatory? Aren’t you holding Switzerland to a double standard? Does the UK, for example, provide FM licences to foreign language broadcasts?
Edward Girardet: There are two principal issues regarding the Swiss government and WRS.
First, it was originally a programme funded and produced by the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation. Not only did it inform the internationals living in the Lake Geneva region, but also provided an alternative view for Swiss themselves, as I understand 30% of the listenership. Many Swiss have worked or studied abroad, or are living with expatriate partners, so they consider themselves part of this community, or at least are interested in this aspect of Swiss society. The station also had an extremely detailed summary of Swiss news and politics, which was even interesting for Swiss themselves.
“The Swiss government shot themselves in the foot with this decision. It was also discriminatory if not racist”
Then, for reasons never fully clear, the government decided to cut the radio station and put it up for tender. This was curious given that WRS attracted far more listeners than the Romansh radio and TV programmes together. While some argued that Romansh are Swiss, and the expatriates not, this basically cut out one of the principal sources of information about contemporary Switzerland for many foreigners, who did not read the Swiss press. Expatriate also pay taxes, including the compulsory audiovisual fee, so they should have a right to such programming, which is also a right under the Council of Europe rules.
If I am generous, my feeling is that this was done out of ignorance, narrow-mindedness or sheer stupidity. Why deny such an important segment of the Swiss population the possibility – and right – of so many foreigners, who are crucial to the country’s economy, to suddenly become uninformed about what is happening in the country. The Swiss government shot themselves in the foot with this decision. It was also discriminatory if not racist.
Second, when WRS was taken over by a private company, the Swiss government in its wisdom, decided to prevent it any form of access to an FM signal, which most people still listen to in Switzerland, forcing them to rely primarily on internet streaming and DAB+, which is already outdated. The Swiss Communications Office gave all sorts of technical reasons as to why this had to be, notably that all FM stations would be changing to DAB+ by 2017. This significantly reduced WRS’s potential audiences as many still do not have DAB+. For me, this was for all the same reasons as their decision to close down the SBC’s WRS station, but you can also add sheer bloody-mindedness. I really do not understand what was achieved by this except to say that “we really don’t think the international community is that important.” Go figure.
Le News: There is much emotion around immigration in Switzerland. On one side, conservative, nativist politicians, appealing to fears the country will be overrun, want the nation’s borders closed. At the same time many on the left seem to want the doors wide open. Isn’t there a failing on both sides to find sensible middle ground, and aren’t your views adding to the polarisation that keeps the discussion away from moderate position in the middle?
“Immigration is a European issue and Switzerland is part of it, whether it likes it or not”
Edward Girardet: The Swiss are notoriously a people of compromise. They loathe controversy. The immigration issue, for example, is perceived as belonging to the Swiss People’s Party (UDC/SVP). Hence, the other parties won’t really touch immigration so as to avoid making it an issue. Personally, as a Weltschweizer, I feel that Switzerland needs to embrace controversial issues and not be afraid to speak out. We have a new generation of Swiss who are far more European. Most of the conservatism comes from Swiss who feel uncomfortable with outside influences.
We’re facing a dire need for a reality check. Immigration is a European issue and Switzerland is part of it, whether it likes it or not. I consider myself European first, then Swiss, primarily because this is the continent on which we live. At the same time, we cannot afford to ignore what is happening in Africa, Asia or the Middle East. It is in our interests to become more informed, and this is where there has to be more pronounced and open public debate.
Le News: Some would say Swiss politics is compromise and consensus driven. As a “world Swiss” (Weltschweizer), born in the United States of Swiss parents, aren’t you running roughshod over the traditional Swiss political process of quiet compromise with a foreign penchant for confrontational debate? Aren’t you denouncing something very Swiss?
“Switzerland has an exceptional role to play internationally, something that many other countries cannot, such as conflict mediation”
Edward Girardet: Not at all. To my mind, it is what being Swiss is about today. Switzerland has an exceptional role to play internationally, something that many other countries cannot, such as conflict mediation. But this does not mean that we should dig ourselves into the ground, into a ‘bastion’ Switzerland and ignore or defray what is happening around us. We have a lot to contribute to the international debate, starting from Geneva, which is a global hub for many of these issues, such as humanitarian response, migration, climate change, communications, global trade and so on.
Certain Swiss recognize this, but it has yet to hit the mainstream. For many Swiss, particularly the Swiss-Germans, anything that happens in the Lake Geneva region is influenced by those ‘subversive’ Latins, the Suisse-Romande. Fortunately, my mother was from Basel, my father from Vaud. So I deliberately seek to cross the Röstigraben. No point getting stuck in the ditch.
Le News: What has happened since you published this article nearly one year ago? Did it spark debate? If so has the debate continued in any meaningful way?
“Many Swiss and expatriates were quite shocked by the censorship imposed by Swissinfo.”
Edward Girardet: We received over 25,000 hits on The Essential Edge website. Plus it went up on the WRS website. Many Swiss and expatriates were quite shocked by the censorship imposed by Swissinfo, which maintained that my writing was not professional enough for them. Quite insulting for someone who has reported for The Christian Science Monitor for so many years as a foreign correspondent.
They yanked the story, which had been posted as an Oped, after six hours. I asked them why and they were clearly embarrassed. For me, Swissinfo was utterly cowardly. It was shameful and an insult to journalism. But then, it is funded by the SBC and the Swiss Foreign Ministry, so perhaps we should not assume that it has an independent voice. But I was pretty stunned. I had tried to get the piece into the Swiss German press rather than the French-speaking which is perhaps more open, but several newspapers refused. One editor contacted me and said that she liked the story but there was no way in hell that she could publish it. Too provocative for the Swiss.
Another reason why it is important to have a diversity of news and information in Switzerland. Many of the mainstream papers are also playing the ‘non-controversial’ approach. The Swiss have got to recognize that the international community in this country needs to be properly informed, and not live on the periphery.