Switzerland’s Dark Side: how to read all about it

Nothing happens in Switzerland, or is allowed to, or is reported. But you can be fined for watering your lawn on Sunday or making a noise after 10pm. That's its reputation anyway. But there are ways to discover what lies behind the veil of public obscurity. Peter Hulm fills in some of the details.

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newspaper and croissant

Don’t overlook local newspapers

Easy enough to find Switzerland’s imprint on the rest of the world. For example, the richest person is Switzerland is Chanel co-heir 73-year-old Geneva resident Gérard Wertheimer (LINK).

Gérard Wertheimer and slightly more wealthy brother Alain, heirs to the Chanel fortune.

Checking “Switzerland news” in my search engine brought up that story, plus a feature on using ChatGTP to visit Switzerland on budget (“It’s no personal assistant“).

The third story was about “Wealthy Switzerland” deciding to propose hosting the 2030 or 2034 Winter Olympics, the first spread across the entire country, by making it “arguably the cheapest Olympics in history” (accounting for inflation) at $1.6 billion, compared to the 2018 $13 billion extravaganza in Pyeongchang (South Korea).

Switzerland has hosted the event two times before, but several times local communities in the proposed regions have refused to underwrite the costs of putting on the Winter Games.

On 29 November, however, media reported “Swiss bid to host Winter Olympics falls at first hurdle” when the International Olympic Committee decided only to pursue talks with France (LINK).

Further down the search engine were those stalwarts, the internationally focused www.swissinfo.ch, the paywalled thelocal.ch (CHF35 a year), and the BBC — whose big story came from 2 November: “Swiss village ding-dong over challenge to cowbells“.

One low-placed discovery that offers unexpected treasures in English and something like 30 other languages is The Swiss Times, “staffed by a small and dedicated team of expats”, that offers a daily newsletter by email. Its archive goes back to 1970.

On 21 November it reported that a voters initiative for a “citizens’ service for all” has come about (gaining enough signatures to force a referendum) and the Government now has 18 months to prepare a counter-proposal. According to the initiative: “All citizens should perform a service for the common good and the environment. This refers to service in the army or equivalent militia service. The required number of soldiers in the army and civil defense must remain guaranteed.”

The Associated Press section on Switzerland, like the other news agencies, tends to be historic and not Swiss-focused. Its main headline on 26 November was from 16 November: “The dispute between the IBA [the boxing regulators] and the IOC could finish in Switzerland’s supreme court“.

The Guardian has a Switzerland section, too, but along the same lines: its main story on 27 November was from 2 November: “Caramac fans decry Nestlé move to discontinue bar: Decision will end more than 60 years of production of confectionery that has gained dedicated UK following.”

euronews has a Switzerland section but its 26 November headline was typical in its coverage and from 23 November: “Switzerland moves to ban Hamas and supports Israel’s self-defence rights.” Hardly “all the latest news about Switzerland” as claimed.

However, the search engines didn’t feature le News.ch, which focuses on Swiss news of interest to expats and offers a weekly newsletter.

The Swiss freebie 20min has a website in French with a Swiss romande section and its Apple app offers machine-translations of its stories in English. But its news selection lives up to its tabloid format and on 26 November its top story was “Fribourg: 50-year-old badly injured after an attack“.

Most newspapers in Switzerland seem to offer email summaries but are paywalled for the full stories. One alternative is the Apple app, News World. It has a Schweiz selector with news offerings from the major newspapers. But unless you pay 8fr you have to live with intrusive ads.

Another Apple App is Newsdaily (not the Windows version). This offers headlines and summaries from selected French or German newspapers (e.g. the tabloid Blick) in the original language.

But here you could read in the French section if not the German (which does not feature the Upper Valais newspapers) that the Valais Government chief Christopher Darbellay plans to take part in the wolf-shooting scheduled in parts of the canton (on ecological grounds) from 1 December.*(See more below)

In all these sources, I couldn’t find anything featured at the top about Swiss women becoming the European curling champions in Aberdeen on 25 November. Even Googling women’s curling toplined the world championships in March.

But it was a major event. As the olympics.com website pointed out:

“Despite multiple successes on the world stage, the European title has always been one that has eluded the Swiss skip. Last year, the Switzerland team came the closest they had ever been to the crown until they were denied by Denmark with the last stone of the match.

It was also a 6-5 cliffhanger: “The reigning world champions, undefeated all week, edged past [Italy’s] side with fourth Alina Paetz delivering the winning shot with her last stone in the 10th end of the 2023 final.”

The men’s championship featured another Italy-Switzerland battle for the European bronze, going 8-4 to Switzerland after an extra end on the evening before. Scotland successfully defended their title against Sweden.

But I would have liked some analysis on why the women’s team, world beaters in the last three competitions, do so well, and better than the men.

And the Upper Valais, though it stands in for the whole of Switzerland in most foreign films despite accounting for only 1% of the Swiss population including me, rarely makes a visible mark.

Le Nouvelliste has a website but many of its stories, as with other Swiss news sources, are paywalled with a French region emphasis.

The Walliser Zeitung offers headlines and sometimes full summaries of local news in German. On 27 November it led with the 13th International Symposium on Children’s Education and Rights, taking place for the first time at the Upper-Valais University of Applied Sciences and Arts in Sierre on 29 November to 1 December.

Swissinfo: also in Ukrainian

The big story in Valais for the week, of course, was the police investigation of paedophilia allegations at the venerable St. Maurice Abbey college. The Rector, not facing allegations, resigned until a result is announced.

The interim Abbot, already suspended from his teaching duties at the secondary school after Swiss television reported the allegations of sexual abuse against a novice, stepped down. His predecessor at the local high school, taken over from the Abbey by the local authorities in 2021, is also being investigated. Eight other priests were involved in cases from 1995-2005, we learned. Five of the canons have been dead for over 15 years and three cases have been decided, leaving only one pending, the Abbey says.

Unusually, Saint-Maurice is not under the jurisdiction of the local diocese of Sion, but reports directly to the Vatican.

In September the Swiss Bishops Conference announced a preliminary investigation into accusations of sexual abuse cover-ups. But the announcement only followed a revelation by Sonntagsblick that a letter alleging coverups was sent the previous May. And the suspensions in St. Maurice only took place after the Swiss television revelations.

The week closed with the announcement by local papers, which I would have thought of international importance, that a national ecclesiastical criminal tribunal will be set up in 2024, after the Lucerne synod blocked half its financial contributions until there were concrete steps.

In mid-September the University of Zurich had published a study reporting at least 1,000 cases since 1950. Pope Francis in 2019 met with two Swiss victims, aged 63 and 74, to apologize for sexual abuse by church members as children in a reformatory and a home. Nothing, though, in response to the latest allegations in this staunchly conservative Roman Catholic canton.

Looking through my Thursday free-delivery of the Upper-Valais newspaper I found several other local stories that can help gauge the temper of local politics and culture. For example:

The Valais is supposed to make available 150 places to stay for migrants in need. Three months after this number was set, the effort has taken “hardly one step forward” to put up the needy till February 2024.

No places are available, I read. Gampel-Bratsch was the only one of nine communes in the Upper Valais to offer its civil protection facilities for asylum-seekers. But it was turned down, though Switzerland had 25,000 asylum requests pending at the end of October.

The asylum authorities said all places on offer, including a private building, were “among other things, in need of renovation”.

The story next to it recounted how a rival Lower-Valais newspaper was duped into printing a crossword with insulting clues against right-wing parties and Swiss big business when the French-language paper opened its pages to Valais artists to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their association. On 18 November the crossword the clue was a “Swiss, racist, xenophobic, antifeminist, anti-ecological, anti-poor and nationalist party”. I won’t spell out the answer. Other clues apparently targeted Nestlé and Lonza. The crossword has since been removed from newspaper’s website.

Maxime Riviera and some of his team

Over the page I read how the boss of the Alpine Ski School Zermatt is suing the town’s Tourism directorate for discrimination that has cost his business money because he comes from Geneva. For years Zermatt had only one ski school business. Today there are 15 (23 in Verbier and 126 in the Valais).

Maxime Riviera, the immigrant to Zermatt, has already taken the local tourism authorities to task. The cafeterias gave staff of certain ski schools 35% reductions on meals. Not his. He took the local council to the competitive practices commission in 2018 and won. The council did away with the rebates.

Last winter he went back to the commission, claiming “Zermatt Tourismus only makes publicity for ski schools of Zermatters. At the tourism counter visitors are systematically sent to their offices.”

The Zermatters are the schools officially licensed by the branch association Swiss Snowsports. Riviera is also suing Zurich Tourismus in the Visp courts for CHF50K with 5% interest per year from November 2021.

Valais Blackneck. Photo wikipedia JoachimKohlerBremen

The scandals go even further. The page 2 story, a major site for big events, revealed that the former President and Treasurer of the Upper Valais Goat Breeding Association had been convicted of slandering five goatherders. The treasurer was also convicted of attempted coercion for threatening an 18-year-old goatherd with years in prison.

The story goes back to November 2019. You have to know that the Upper Valais is very proud of its blacknecks, which the main search engine result (Roy’s Farm describes as “a very beautiful breed of domestic goal”.

The animals are black from the nose to behind the shoulder and white from there to the tail, to quote wikipedia. In the interests of accuracy, wikipedia also notes that in 2016 the Valais Blackneck was shown by DNA tests to originate in Spain. It is also raised in Italy, but the Valais has some 3,500 compared to a few hundred in Italy, Austria and Germany. The Valais organizes regular goat exhibitions with prizes for the most ‘beautiful’ or ‘handsome’ competitors.

Four years ago, after a show, the goatherds from Naters and Termen were met with insults and allegations when they turned up to collect their prizewinning animals. The allegations: they had altered the goats’ real colouring to get their prizes.

A special meeting of the breeders association in January 2020 barred four of the goatherds from competitions and markets for the next 1-5 years, though no manipulation or fraud was demonstrated, as the Visp Circuit Court noted in its 31 October judgement against the ex-President and former Treasurer. But the ban is still in place.

And the court case against the officials concerned not only statements at the Extraordinary Assembly but also what took place later, involving the treasurer’s repeated public allegations that one of the goatherds was the Swiss dialect equivalent of a “blaggard”.

The court also criticized the state prosecutor’s office for taking so long to bring the years-old case to court.

This benefited the convicted officials. The court said it would reduce the punishment for the two ex-officials accordingly: CHF2400 in fines, plus CHF400 costs and two years’ probation for the ex-treasurer and CHF2000 total for the ex-President. Each has to cover half of the CHF2100 procedural costs, and each pay CHF1750 to the goat breeders.

The ex-President’s defence was that in his statements he was speaking in as a public official. But the Visp court rejected this, saying the official knew his statements would damage the herders’ reputations, and “he showed no recognition or regret” for his statements.

Local newspapers, it’s clear, can still play an irreplaceable part in our lives. I look on Global Geneva Insights as a local news source for the international community in Switzerland.

Catchup

A quick roundup of recent stories from swissinfo you might have missed:

  • Swiss 2-week campaign from 25 November tackles abuse against women and LGBTQIA+ victims. 25 November 2023 (LINK)
  • Switzerland to get 600 new fast-charging stations for electric vehicles. 24 November 2023 (LINK)
  • More than 50 Swiss ski lifts are rusting away. 8 November 2023 (LINK)
“In the past 25 years, 128 wolves have been found dead in Switzerland. Some 54 were legally shot, 38 died in traffic collisions and 11 were poached.”

In fact, sheep acccount for only 11% of the wolves’ prey (1 in 9 of animals killed), according to a Kora Foundations study. Le Nouvelliste (French). 1 June 2024 (LINK)

About the wolves

* To fill in some background on the wolf situation in Switzerland:

From 2019 the wolf population in Switzerland has reportedly grown from under 100 to over 300, 30% a year. The Valais has 10 packs [or 13, see below] with 70 wolves out of the 22 packs in the whole country. Farmers report more than 1,500 fatal attacks on sheep, goats, cows, calves, horses, and other livestock in 2022.

New laws have made it easier to cull wolves — before they attack livestock — coming into force on 1 December and effective until the end of January 2024.

New laws making it easier to cull wolves — before they attack livestock — coming into force on 1 December, effective until the end of January 2024.

In September 2020 more than half of Swiss voters (51.9%) rejected parliament’s proposed changes to the hunting laws to reduce wolf protection. The law allows a wolf to be shot if it kills more than 25 livestock. After being pushed to extinction in Switzerland some 150 years ago, when the last native wolf was shot in the Ticino in 1872 wolf packs were seen in the French-Italian border region in 1993. Shortly after, the first wild wolves were reported in the Swiss Alps.

The aim of the preventive cull is to reduce the number of wolf packs to 12. A single wolf pack needing around 250 square kilometers (96.5 square miles) of territory on average (LINK). Theoretically, the 20,000 or so km2 of Swiss Alpine and Jura terrain is big enough for 60 packs of five to six wolves each. According to Reinhard Schnidrig, head of the Wildlife and Forest Biodiversity Section of the Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN), 20 packs are necessary to assure the wolf’s long-term future.

A breeder in Jeizinen trains Maremmano/Maremma sheepdogs to protect sheep flocks, but it takes up to three years to accustom them fully to living with the sheep, and they work best as groups of three or four, which makes them comparatively expensive for cash-conscious farmers. Recorded as flock protectors since Roman times in the Maremma region of Tuscany and Lazio, the dog’s presence is usually enough to dissuade wolves, and combat is rare.

The Valais plans to cull 7 of its 13 resident wolf packs, around 34 wolves. But the local government specialist say it would be a great success if 10-15 animals could be shot, given “the human resources, the nature of the terrain and the weather conditions in winter” (LINK).

swissinfo. The Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN) has filed an appeal with the Federal Administrative Court in order to resume the shooting of wolf packs in Switzerland. 16 December 2023 (LINK) “Since the authorizations were issued by the federal authorities, eight wolves have been shot in canton Graubünden and 14 in canton Valais, according to the latest count. The environmental organizations Pro Natura, WWF, BirdLife and the Swiss Wolf Group believe that the federal and cantonal authorities are not respecting the principle of proportionality with such wolf culls. They stress the important role played by the wolf in forest ecosystems.”

swissinfo. Canton Valais halts wolf culling after NGO appeal. 13 December 2023 (LINK)

Useful links

nusereal. Swiss news with international impact (LINK)

The Swiss Times. Swiss news and lifestyle in English (LINK)

SWI: swissinfo. Swiss perspectives in 10 languages (LINK)

The Local. Switzerland’s news in English (LINK)

20minutes. News on Swiss and international events (LINK) in French

International news. Newscompare.com: sets U.S. liberal, middle-of-the-road, and rightwing websites side by side. (LINK)

Croissant and newspaper photo from Pixabay.

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