Defamation remains a criminal offence in Switzerland.
The Swiss Criminal Code foresees the following offences:
Defamation (Art. 173): Accusing a person of dishonourable behaviour or similar prone damaging that person’s reputation. The act is punishable with a fine of up to 180 times the daily rate.
If the accused is able to prove the veracity of the accusation or that he or she had good grounds to believe the accusation true, the accused is exempt from criminal liability. Proof of truth is inadmissible in certain cases in which the expression does not serve public interest, in particular when the expression is related to personal or family life.
Slander (Art. 174): Accusing a person of dishonourable behaviour or similar to prone to damaging that person’s reputation, while knowing the accusation to be false. The act is punished with up to three years in prison or a fine. If the accused deliberately sought to undermine a person’s good name, the act is punishable with up to three years in prison and a fine of no less than 30 times the daily rate.
Insult (Art. 177): Attacking a person’s honour through words, writing, pictures, gestures or actions. The act is punishable with a fine of up to 90 times the daily rate.
Criminal Defamation of Public Officials
Criminal Defamation of the Head of State
Criminal Defamation of the State and its Symbols
There are no provisions that bear relation to journalistic or media content.
Art. 270 of the Criminal Code provides liability for physical attacks on Swiss symbols. According to this provision, any person who maliciously removes, damages or acts in an insulting manner towards a Swiss national emblem which is displayed by a public authority, and in particular the coat of arms or the flag of the Confederation or a canton is liable to imprisonment for up to three years or a fine.
Criminal Defamation of Foreign Heads of State
Offending a foreign state (Art. 296): Offending a foreign state by insulting its head of state, its government, a diplomatic representative, an official delegate to a diplomatic conference taking place in Switzerland or one of its official representatives at an international organisation located in Switzerland. The act is punishable with up to three years in prison or a fine.
Offending intergovernmental organisations (Art. 297): Offending an official representative of an intergovernmental organisation based in or holding a conference in Switzerland. The act is punishable with up to three years in prison or a fine.
Criminal Defamation of Foreign States and Symbols
Art. 298 of the Criminal Code provides that any person who wilfully removes, damages or conducts himself in an insulting manner towards a national emblem of a foreign state, and in particular its coat of arms or flag which is publicly displayed by one of its official representatives is liable to a custodial sentence not exceeding three years or to a monetary penalty.
Criminal Defamation of the Deceased
Criminal Code Art. 175 (defamation or slander against a deceased or missing person) provides that a relative of deceased person may file a criminal claim on the deceased or missing person’s behalf. The accused cannot be punished if the act took place more than 30 years prior .
Disturbance of freedom of religion and belief (Art. 261): Publicly and maliciously insulting or mocking the religious convictions of others, especially the belief in God; dishonouring objects of religious veneration; maliciously hindering, disrupting or publicly mocking a constitutionally protected form of worship; maliciously dishonouring a place or object meant for such a form of worship. The act is punishable with a fine of up to 180 times the daily rate.
Official statistics on the number of convictions for selected articles and years :
Article: 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 215
Art. 173: 198, 232, 329, 312, 303
Art. 174: 60, 74, 94, 105, 111
Art. 177: 1,920; 2,504; 2,748; 2,738; 2,680
Art. 261: 2, 4, 3, 2, 1
Art. 296: 0, 0, 0, 0, 0
Art. 297: 0, 0, 0, 0, 0
Criminal Defamation and Media
In October 2012, the Zurich District Court convicted Tages-Anzeiger journalist Maurice Thiriet of defamation and sentenced him to 75 daily fines at a rate of 90 francs . The case related to an article published in August 2010 entitled “The puffed-up astronaut” about a young astrophysicist named Barbara Burtscher, who had been featured often in the media for apparently heading towards a career as an astronaut with NASA. Thiriet’s article, however, questioned a number of Burtscher’s claims and ultimately described her as having enjoyed a “short career as an imposter (Hochstaplerin)”. An appeals court confirmed the conviction in November 2013, but reduced the fine to 60 daily fines at a rate of 90 francs. The Federal Supreme Court of Switzerland likewise upheld the verdict in April 2014. According to reports, the Federal Supreme Court noted that while early media appearances on the part of Burtscher “were at least strongly borderline deceitful”, she later made it clear that she was not in the process of becoming a NASA astronaut, a point of which Thiriet’s article was determined not have taken sufficient account.
In October 2016, a court in Zürich convicted an editor with the newspaper 20 Minutes of defamation. The editor was sentenced to 30 daily fines at a rate of 180 francs. The case related to an article that appeared in 20 Minutes on Dec. 15, 2015 about clothing worn by right-wing extremists with the title “When harmless clothing becomes a provocation”. The article included a photo slide show, one of which shows a band called “Frei.Wild” with the caption: “Right-wing extremist beliefs can also be more subtly transmitted, for example through T-shirts from bands such as Frei.Wild, Landser or Screwdriver”. The band Frei.Wild brought criminal charges for defamation against the editor. The court ruled that while the bands Landser and Screwdriver had demonstrably right-wing extremist attitudes, the editor had thrown FreiWild “into the same pot”. The court noted that the term “right-wing extremist” is to be seen as offensive to honour in Switzerland .
In January 2017, Bruno Hug, publisher of the newspaper Obersee Nachrichten, was convicted of defamation and sentenced to 30 daily fines at a rate of 440 francs. The case related to an article published in summer 2016 in which Hug claimed a trustee had pressured a retired man into providing his signature. At the relevant time the man was a patient in a psychiatric clinic. Hug suggested that the man only signed in order to be able to leave the clinic and wrote “If it was so, then it was extortion, I think”. The judge ruled that Hug’s comments suggested that the trustee had possibly committed a criminal act and noted that Hug failed to give the trustee an opportunity to comment, thereby violating the journalistic duty of care. The judge further noted that Hug could have written the article without using terms such as “extortion” .
Insult of foreign head of state
In 2010, the Swiss federal government granted permission for the prosecution of political activist Éric Stauffer for offending a foreign head of state, namely, Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi. The request was made by the Libyan government is response to posters set up by Stauffer, in relation to a referendum, that read, in reference to Gadhafi “He wants to destroy Switzerland”. Permission was granted by the Swiss government despite the fact that Gadhafi had actually filed a motion with the UN that aimed at the “abolition” of Switzerland .
Years before, in the 1970s, the publisher of the satirical magazine The Pill, Narcisse René Praz, was convicted of insulting the Shah of Iran. Praz was sentenced to a fine of several hundred francs. As in the Libyan case, the Iranian government requested the prosecution, which was approved by the Swiss federal government .
Reports have also suggested that in 2008 Colombia requested the prosecution of a Cuban exile living in Switzerland for insulting Colombia’s then-President Álvaro Uribe Vélez in a photo montage on the web .
Recent Legal Changes
Notes and Acknowledgements
Information for Switzerland was originally collected by IPI as part of a study commissioned by the Office of the Representative on Freedom of the Media of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). It is reprinted here with the permission of the OSCE.
A fully footnoted version of this entry is available in the OSCE study. This entry was last updated in March 2017.
The information contained in this database is for informational and advocacy purposes only. If you are a journalist facing a defamation claim, you should seek legal advice from a qualified attorney. However, if you are unable to find such an attorney, IPI may be able to assist you in doing so. Please contact us at info(at)ipi.media.