German journalists accused of treason for leaking documents

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FreedomA German blog covering digital issues and surveillance was accused of treason because they leaked secret state documents on plans to observe social networks. Politicians, journalists and civil society see the prosecution as attack on press freedom. During the ongoing affair, the Federal Prosecutor was recently dismissed from his position.
The blog Netzpolitik.org, which is doing investigative journalism on digital topics and especially surveillance of the cyberworld. The project is known to be fighting for digital freedom rights. Now the journalists are accused to have betrayed the state.
In spring 2015, they published state documents which revealed plans of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution to strengthen the surveillance of the internet. The institution planned to observe social networks to find terrorists and extremist profiles. Netzpolitik.org published the documents which were leaked to them by a so far anonymous political contact as they saw an attack to civil rights in such plans of which the civil society needed to be informed. Now, the president of the institution, Hans-Georg Maaßen, is pressing charges against them for leaking state secrets. The Federal Public Porsecutor’s Office accepted the charge and is now investigating, if the suspicion of treason is tenable.
“I see a clear attempt at intimidation, not only against our work, but against all our sources from political Berlin not to disclose how the federal government is dealing with the scandal of mass surveillance”, told Markus Beckedahl, founder and editor in chief of Netzpolitik.org, the German public broadcaster ARD. The whole case is strongly connected to an affair that hit Germany in spring 2015 when it was revealed that the German secret service BND was supporting the NSA in bugging German politicians and other institutions. Many appeals were made, but NSA and BND did not have to face charges – as the same head of the Prosecution Office, who is now leading the investigation against the journalists, did refuse to accept the charges.

German media unite to support colleagues

Politicians, journalists and civil society are strongly protesting against the prosecution, as it is seen as an attack on press freedom and other democratic ideals. From leftist paper die tageszeitung to notoriuos tabloid Bild: They all unite to focus on the role of media as Fourth Estate and counterbalance to the state power – which Netzpolitik.org fulfilled in an excellent way. In general, the accusations are called unreasonable and even an attack on democracy.
“Naturally there can be no casual bystanders, when the reporters themselves are the aim of state intervention”, the editor in chief of taz.die tageszeitung’s online editorial office, Daniél Kretschmar, comments on the current situation of German media. And many journalists show their solidarity: They publish statements which clearly condemn the charges against Netzpolitik.org, support their colleagues and strongly criticise the Federal Prosecutor for accepting the charges.

Public call to leak documents

In addition to that, Correctiv, a German journalistic research network, appeals to all editorial offices to publish the leaked documents. With the motto “Treason? He should investigate all of us!” they call for a “collective treason”. Reporters without Borders were the first to follow. “Such an attempt at intimidation is unacceptable for Reporters without Borders. It mainly has the aim to prevent whistleblowers from confidentially turning to the media with their information”, the NGO states.
These days it has to be decided, if the suspicion of treason against Netzpolitik.org will be kept up. This accusation is a very strong one and is rarely opened against journalists in Germany – the last time in 1962 when Der Spiegel received secret military documents and published an analysis stating that the Federal Armed Forces were badly prepared to face a possible Third World War. The accusation of treason implies that secrets are published, usually to opponents, to intentionally endanger the state security. It is punished at least with one year of custodial sentence. Netzpolitik.org stated that they seek juridical advice, but will continue to work.
Update August 05, 2015: A few days after announcing the suspicion of treason against the journalists, the Federal Public Prosecutor, Harald Range, was dismissed by the Minister of Justice and had to quit his position immediately. However, he did not have to leave because of charging the journalists. The prosecutor announced that he was forced to hold back a consultancy stating that the documents leaked were in fact classified a state secret, which would create the reason for the charges of treason. The Minister of Justice classified this announcement a flam, stating that the decision to restrain the expert’s report was made before knowing its result.
Still, the proceedings against Netzpolitik.org have not been stopped yet, but the recent events suggest that the prosecution will be discontinued soon.