Intelligence Chief Defends Treason Charges Against Netzpolitik ‘Digital Rights’ Blog

Germany’s domestic intelligence chief has been defending the halted treason charges which were controversially brought against Netzpolitik reporters. In what was seen as an attack on press freedom in the post-Snowden world Netzpolitik was to be investigated to ensure “the fight against extremism and terrorism” after publishing “classified” documents.

In his interview with the German weekly Bild am Sonntag, domestic intelligence chief Hans-Georg Maaßen (pictured above) defended the criminal charges against Netzpolitik reporters Andre Meister, Markus Beckedahl and an “unknown source”.

The charges relate to two articles in which they published quotes from a highly confidential parliamentary committee report on a new unit to collect mass data from social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube . The “Extended Specialist Support Internet” unit, funded by a secret €2.75 million budget, was to have 75 dedicated operatives spying on online chats.

Deutsche Welle reports the president of Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) said that “to continue the fight against extremism and terrorism…it was necessary to guard against the publication of documents classified as confidential or secret.”

Embarrassingly for Maaßen the investigation into the Netzpolitik bloggers was halted by Federal Prosecutor Harald Range on Friday. He said his office will not initiate criminal prosecutions for now, “in view of the great good of freedom of the press and expression”. The justice ministry will instead investigate whether the material published was classified as secret in the first place.

Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper reports Range saying: “Until the expert opinion comes in, the investigations will be stopped.”

Germany’s Justice Minister Heiko Maas has publicly expressed his doubt as to whether the leaked documents were a “state secret”, publication of which would endanger national security.

Fellow Netzpolitik writer, Anna Biselli stated on the website: “From the very beginning, the charges against our alleged source(s) were politically motivated and targeted to crush the necessary public debate about Internet surveillance post-Snowden. Whistleblowers in the public interest need protection, not prosecution for ‘treason.”

Meister and Beckedahl were officially informed of the controversial investigation on 24 July. The initial charges of “treason” were widely criticised by both the general public and the media. The journalists’ union DJV labelled it an attack on German press freedom.

The Local reports Meister warned the inquiry could be just the beginning of attempts to clamp down on leaking of security service documents. He alleged that the federal prosecutor was also considering an investigation against the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper on similar grounds.

Deutsche Welle reported yesterday that more than 2,000 protesters gathered in Berlin to demonstrate in support of the reporters. Marching under an umbrella banner “for fundamental rights and freedom of the press” individual placards carried such messages as “RIP democracy” and the snappy “Treason? Whoever reacts with such panic, surely has too much to hide!”

The protests put extra pressure on Federal Prosecutor Range. Describing the possible prosecutions as “just embarrassing” opposition parties such as the Social Democrats and Left Party called for his resignation.

France 24 reports this would be Germany’s first treason case against the media since the 1960s.

In 1962 Hamburg-based news weekly Der Spiegel published a report pointing to shortcomings in the German armed forces. The paper’s offices were raided by police and editors arrested, sparking street protests in their support. A court later ruled in Der Spiegel‘s favour and the defence minister stepped down in what was seen as a victory for democracy.

German lawyers have now demanded the abolition of the charge of treason for journalists.

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