news Wednesday, February 25, 2015 - 05:30

Chitra Subramaniam | The News Minute | February 19, 2015 | 6.01 pm IST

Geneva: Let it be said loud and clear – the best tribute for a good piece of investigative journalism is for law enforcement to take over where journalism leads. The Geneva raids on the HSBC bank yesterday should come as a reassuring step to all journalists who have been part of the #SwissLeaks journey. 

To assume that nobody, especially politicians and bankers, knew much about the contents of #SwissLeaks is to be foolish. In addition to governments – United Kingdom (UK), France, Germany, Switzerland and India – the “Falciani list” was in circulation in various forms from the end of 2008. Seven years is a long time for HSBC to wipe out all trace. But giving up or cynicism is not what brought us out of caves. At the very least Switzerland will be well advised to stop money laundering from criminal activities.

The straw that broke the camel’s back and pushed Geneva authorities to raid HSBC on Wednesday was the international media pressure following the work of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) christened #SwissLeaks. The highly respected left of centre French daily Le Monde received the documents in 2014 and shared them with 60 media outlets to undertake further work. 

This is what the ICIJ said when it posted the investigations online. “Secret documents reveal that the global banking giant HSBC profited from doing business with arms dealers who channeled mortar bombs to child soldiers in Africa, bag men for Third World dictators, traffickers in blood diamonds and other international outlaws.”

The other reason for the raids is a corollary of the first – Switzerland could not be seen as not doing anything given the density and detailing that was now available in the public domain. “We are talking of crime here – serious crime,” the spokesperson for the public prosecutor’s office in Geneva told TNM as the raids were in progress. 

Beyond the headlines and revenues, newspaper ownerships and stories being scuttled is a question of faith – faith that millions of readers repose in the media they consume. This expectation does not require journalists to be Tarzan or Darth Veda. It only requires them to do their job and say they are unable to do so when they become part of something else that masquerades as journalism. That knf of faith, once lost, is difficult to recover as can be seen by the bashing media has been subjected to globally. #SwissLeaks is one example of what the power of journalism can be. Governments that do not wish to take this information further will do so at their own risk and peril. 

Why did cantonal authorities (Geneva) and not federal authorities (Bern) raid the bank?

The country which is the modern world’s oldest democracy has a federal structure of governance. It’s a short drive from Geneva to Bern, Switzerland’s capital, but state laws and national laws overlap only in very specific instances (public services, for example). If India asks for mutual assistance in criminal matters (and l’affaire HSBC could be one), the request will be routed through Bern to Geneva. Only countries within the European Union (EU) and in some cases the United States (US) are granted the privilege of contacting cantonal authorities directly. For other countries, diplomatic channels have to pass through Bern. This is what makes the Alpine nation’s processes sturdy – that is also what makes them time- consuming. 

Action in India and deal with whistleblower

Seeking early cooperation with Geneva authorities should be a priority for the Special Investigating team (SIT) in Delhi as it prepares to begin court proceedings in India. Not all people and entities among the 1,995 Indians are involved in illegal activities but limiting the Indian investigation to tax evasion would be an error. The recently-struck deal with the whistleblower has to be sound and purposeful and not a fishing expedition as his credibility is low in Switzerland. 

Historically, whistleblowers have acted to correct a wrong without looking for pecuniary gain or fame. In general they look for three things. That their identities are protected (till they decide to expose themselves), the information they leak is not fiddled with and finally, their efforts are not fritted away for political gains of a few. Hervé Falciani, the whistleblower who walked out of HSBC in Geneva with 100GB in files in 2008 fails on all counts. He was not struck by altruism. A French-Italian national who grew up in the Riviera and worked in HSBC there before being transferred to Geneva, he tried to sell information to other countries under a false identity. He returned empty handed to Geneva to find an arrest warrant waiting for him. Requesting time to be with his daughter for Christmas (granted by the Swiss and can be understood only if you understand Switzerland) and promising to return, Falciani hopped across to France in a rented car, information and family in tow. Early in 2009, he handed over his files to the French government which shared it with the Germans who shared it with India etc. 

Falciani lost control over his treasure trove in 2009 and he has no control over what happens next. By all accounts he is trying to get some cash by making a virtue out of necessity. The #SwissLeaks documents are dense and need careful analysis but it is not rocket science for a seasoned chartered accountant or banker to connect the dots. But, as Swiss investigative journalist Francois Pilet (who is part of the ICIJ) said, Falciani’s biggest contribution to the Indian efforts will be his role as a witness to the prosecution. For the moment he is the only one. Cantonal authorities in Geneva have said they will pursue individuals if necessary. If there are Indians on their list, India will have a ready reckoner on its team.

Good journalism just kicked in

Faith, that intangible good which journalists have to merit everyday has got a shot in the arm with #SwissLeaks. Persistence has paid off and Swiss federal authorities who said the data is stolen and old therefore no action is possible may find that the bottom has fallen off from their arguments following the Geneva raids. 

Old or new, stolen or accessed through privileged sources, the over 60,000 leaked files, 100,000 clients in 203 countries and a team of journalists in Paris, Washington, Geneva and 46 other locations and 60 media outlets around the world working to build on the available evidence is beyond spectacular. Most investigative journalists and prosecutors have much less to work on. A lot of the initial work for the public prosecutor’s office in Geneva has already been accomplished by the ICIJ team. 

These are early days, but the sweet smell of journalism, collaboration, sharing and healthy competition all pulling towards clearing and occupying space for the métier is in the air. Thank you, #SwissLeaks.

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