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Germany rocked by debate on freedom of the press and government influence over the courts

Saturday, August 8th 2015 - 10:14 UTC
Full article 3 comments
Meister and Beckedahl published classified documents on Netzpolitik, saying German intelligence had plans to expand online surveillance to fight terrorism Meister and Beckedahl published classified documents on Netzpolitik, saying German intelligence had plans to expand online surveillance to fight terrorism
Headlines screamed that freedom of the press was under attack and thousands took to the streets of Berlin in support of Netzpolitik. Headlines screamed that freedom of the press was under attack and thousands took to the streets of Berlin in support of Netzpolitik.
Chancellor Merkel and several ministers all publicly withdrew their support for the chief prosecutor Harald Range, who had launched the investigation. Chancellor Merkel and several ministers all publicly withdrew their support for the chief prosecutor Harald Range, who had launched the investigation.
“It was not acceptable”, said Range for politicians “to influence an investigation because the possible findings may not be politically expedient”. “It was not acceptable”, said Range for politicians “to influence an investigation because the possible findings may not be politically expedient”.

Journalists have been accused of treason; a chief prosecutor fired; and we have witnessed the unedifying spectacle of government ministers scrambling to get out of the firing line after popular outrage. But the scandal rocking Germany's political establishment isn't about sleaze or corruption but rather whether a little-known website can publish documents already publicly discussed.

 What started off as an obscure case has turned into a fiery national debate about the freedom of the press and the influence of government ministers over the courts.

Earlier this year, Andre Meister and Markus Beckedahl published classified documents on the digital rights website Netzpolitik, indicating that Germany's intelligence service was planning to expand online surveillance to combat terrorism, and that a special unit could be set up to monitor social media.

Last week the journalists announced that they were being investigated for treason.

If the state prosecutor had his way, wrote Andre Meister on Netzpolitik: “Markus and I will soon be sitting in jail for two years.”

There was a national outcry. Headlines screamed that freedom of the press was under attack and thousands took to the streets of Berlin in support of Netzpolitik. In Germany it is data protection that gets people worked up.

That seems less surprising when you remember Germany's painful experience of totalitarianism during the 20th Century. Hitler's secret police, the Gestapo, and communist East Germany's Stasi agents spied extensively on their own citizens and severely controlled the press.

So privacy rights and the role of the media are not simply matters of academic debate. People here are all too aware of the dangers when a state gets too powerful.

This historical legacy helps explain why the allegations of American spying in Germany have caused such uproar. And why Edward Snowden, who leaked the information of American spying activities, is viewed as something approaching a national hero here, particularly by left-wing Germans - many of whom are possibly unaware of Snowden's own right-wing views when it comes to the role of the state and social welfare.

The treason investigation into the journalists at Netzpolitik has been so controversial that it was only a matter of time before heads started to roll. Within days government leaders, including the interior minister, the minister of justice and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, all publicly withdrew their support for the chief prosecutor Harald Range, who had launched the investigation.

And on Tuesday it was announced that Mr Range would be dismissed - the first time that a German government has fired a chief prosecutor. But the scandal is far from over.

Opposition politicians are calling for a full inquiry into why the justice minister and the interior minister let the journalists be investigated for treason in the first place. And Mr Meister and Mr Beckedahl are demanding answers over whether they have been spied on by the authorities.

“For us, as journalists, who believe in the rule of law, it feels like we've landed in a nightmare, in a repressive state, in which it's possible to spy on investigative journalists,” Beckedahl told German television station ARD.

The treason investigation has now been suspended. But chief prosecutor Range has accused the government of interfering in legal proceedings. It was not acceptable, he said, for politicians “to influence an investigation because the possible findings may not be politically expedient”.

Instead of clarifying the situation of what journalists can and can't publish, the case appears to be throwing up even more questions. What is a state secret? What is a journalist allowed to publish? And in the days of online media and social media, what is the definition of a journalist anyway?

The fact that the investigation was launched, and then stopped when things got sticky politically, hasn't solved any of these issues - meaning, warn critics, that it's only a matter of time before another similar scandal blows up. (BBC).-

Categories: Politics, International.

Top Comments

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  • Briton

    Scandal rocking Germany's political establishment

    Apparently words like traitor and treason has been bandied about,

    Germany one feels, is feeling the pinch
    And it seems the impeccable Germans are not as honest, as they make out to be,

    So they say.
    .

    Aug 08th, 2015 - 07:14 pm 0
  • ChrisR

    It seems the Krauts are terrified of another Hitler, this time in a skirt.

    Aug 08th, 2015 - 07:58 pm 0
  • Skip

    Actually the system is working as it should.

    Germans are very open and frank about their past and they are extremely critical of anything their government does that even slightly deviates from that.

    Indeed in some respects Germans are even more vigilant against their government than Brits, Yanks and Aussies.

    Aug 09th, 2015 - 08:52 am 0
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