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EXPLAINED: Why Switzerland has not banned Russia’s propaganda networks

Unlike many other countries, Switzerland has not banned Russian propaganda networks like Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik. Why?

The logo of Russian state-run news network Russia Today. Photo: Lionel BONAVENTURE / AFP
The logo of Russian state-run news network Russia Today. Photo: Lionel BONAVENTURE / AFP

In the days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, authorities in the European Union, the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom and elsewhere banned Russian state-run news networks, including Russia Today and Sputnik. 

In making the announcement, the EU said it would stay in place “until the Russian Federation and its associated outlets cease to conduct disinformation and information manipulation actions against the EU and its member states.”

As of late March however, Switzerland has not followed suit – although several networks including Salt, Sunrise and Swisscom have voluntarily removed the channels from their networks. 

UPDATE: How Switzerland could be impacted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine

Swiss federal councillor Viola Amherd, the head of the Department of Defence, Civil Protection and Sport (DDPS), announced a plan to ban the channels on March 23, calling them a Russian “propaganda hub”. 

“After consistent adoption of EU sanctions by Switzerland, standing aside on this important issue would be incomprehensible” a department spokesperson told Swiss news organisation Tamedia. 

Legal experts however question whether Switzerland would be able to uphold such a ban. 

A Federal Office of Communications (Ofcom) spokesperson told 20 Minutes that the government has ‘no legal basis’ to enforce such a ban. 

“The federal government does not have the basis in telecommunications law to demand blocking of access to websites with content from RT or Sputnik, but I have noted that individual Providers such as Swisscom, Sunrise and Salt no longer offer the relevant programs on their TV platforms,” the spokesperson said. 

There is also disagreement on the federal council, Switzerland’s primary governing body, as to whether a ban is justified. 

Guy Parmelin, Amherd’s colleague on the seven-member body, said a ban would be disproportionate with freedoms of expression and the media. 

Sanctions on Russia: Is Switzerland still a neutral nation?

Parmelin’s Swiss People’s Party have also been the primary opponent of Switzerland’s decision to adopt European Union sanctions against Russia, saying it is an erosion of Switzerland’s long-held neutrality. 

The DDPS hit back however, saying the networks were not examples of a free and diverse media, but were instead state-run instruments controlled and financed directly by Moscow. 

The DDPS has indicated it will push ahead with a ban, which may lead to a legal showdown to determine the legality of the prohibition. 

Ukraine: Pressure builds on Switzerland to deport ‘Putin’s mistress’

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‘Limited capacity’: How the Swiss right wants to shut out western Ukrainian refugees

With about 51,000 refugees from Ukraine currently in Switzerland, right-wing politicians argue in favour of introducing geographic vetting in regards to who can qualify for Status S, saying Switzerland has "limited capacity" for refugees.

'Limited capacity': How the Swiss right wants to shut out western Ukrainian refugees

After Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24th, the Federal Council activated, for the first time ever, the ‘S status’ authorising Ukrainians and Ukraine residents fleeing the war to live temporarily in Switzerland.

The special status is initially valid for a year, but can be extended. Anyone who is still in Switzerland after five years receives a B permit.

Included is also the right to work, as well as free health care and language courses. The refugees also have the right to free public transportation, but this perk will end on May 31st, with no word yet whether it will be renewed.

READ MORE: Switzerland’s special ‘S permit’ visa program: What Ukrainians need to know

Now, however, “the great solidarity with refugees from Ukraine is cracking”, according to SonntagsZeitung, which reports that rightwing politicians in Switzerland are “beginning to question our country’s culture of hospitality”.

The right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which has consistently opposed sanctions on Russia, is calling on the government to limit the S status  only to Ukrainians who come from the eastern part of the country, which is currently most impacted by Russia’s invasion.  

This movement is spearheaded by MP Martina Bircher, who argues that Switzerland is reaching its limits in terms of the number of refugees it can accommodate and support, and it should therefore grant S status only to those fleeing the most conflict-ridden regions of Ukraine, like the eastern part.

Other right-of-centre groups are in favour of this “regionalisation” as well. Andrea Caroni, president of the centre-right Liberal Party, supports the idea of granting the special status based on the geographical evolution of the Ukrainian conflict, saying Switzerland “ultimately has limited capacity” to absorb refugees from Ukraine. 

He said, however, that such a measure “must be coordinated at the European level.”

Not everyone, however, agrees with Bircher’s proposal.

According to Gerhard Pfister, president of the Centre Party, adopting geographical limitations “would create two classes of Ukrainians. This is not right”.

It is unclear how the SVP would seek to draw barriers to distinguish between the east and west of the country. 

As for the Conference of Cantonal Directors of Social Affairs, vice-president Marianne Lienhard said the organisaton will discuss the proposal at its next meeting at the end of May.

Cantons are directly affected by the influx of Ukrainians, as they will eventually bear the cost of supporting the refugees — the cost which is currently borne mostly at a federal level.

The “NZZ am Sonntag” calculated that in 2022, the costs of housing, health insurance, and general support will amount to between 1.25 and 2.25 billion francs. In 2023, these expenses could climb to 7.5 billion.

“Fake” refugees

In an article she wrote for the SVP website, Bircher also argued that some refugees pretending to be Ukrainian actually aren’t.

As an MP from Aargau, she claims that out of 12 people who received the S status in a small town in her canton, only seven were Ukrainian nationals. The other five came from Africa.

Among them are  “Kenyan and Lebanese men who claim to have lived in Ukraine or who actually lived there before the war, but who do not have a Ukrainian passport”.

The S permit scheme does not only provide protection for Ukrainian citizens, but also citizens of other countries who live in Ukraine. 

While reserved predominantly for Ukrainians, the S status has also been occasionally granted to citizens of other countries. 

According to the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM), about 1,000 “other” refugees received this status as well, including 238 Russians, and  people from Germany, France, Italy, the United States, Canada and Australia.

In such cases, children have a different passport from their parents, but it is the parents’ nationality and place of residence that defines whether the status is granted.

So it could happen that the parents have Ukrainian passports, while their children are citizens of other nations.

READ MORE: Swiss MPs call for Russian money to be used to reconstruct Ukraine