Crazy things are afoot in Germany. And I don’t mean how the country’s international reputation is suffering because of the madness surrounding the German government’s handling of the situation with Greece. Or how an increasing number of bigoted morons keep setting fire to homes for asylum seekers. No, as if these developments weren’t worrying enough, the German federal prosecutor now seems to have decided to add another crazy plan to the recent plethora of bad decisions made by German federal agencies and the government.
The federal prosecutor, Harald Range – we have met him before; he’s is the guy who recently packed in his investigation into NSA spying on Angela Merkel’s mobile phone because he was unable to gather evidence that would stand up in court – is now investigating two German journalist for – wait for it – treason (“Landesverrat”, in German). The people standing accused of endangering Germany’s safety and security by publishing classified information (sound familiar?) are journalists Markus Beckedahl and Andre Meister who run the blog Netzpolitik.org – a website concerned with all things political on the web, more specifically internet politics, data protection, freedom of information and digital rights issues. Netzpolitik.org, well-known and award-winning in Germany, is also very concerned with the NSA scandal and Germany’s lack of a proper investigation, as well as the clandestine dealings of the world’s spy agencies.
The accuser in this treason investigation against two of its journalists is, you may be unsurprised to discover, the chief of just such a spy agency: Hans-Georg Maassen, president of the Bundesverfassungsschutz (BfV) – the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, aka Germany’s domestic intelligence agency. The move, as the Guardian reports, follows the publication by Netzpolitik.org of “articles about the BfV that appeared on the website on 25 February and 15 April,” which, the BfV chief complained, “had been based on leaked documents.”
According to the Guardian (quoting German public broadcaster ARD), one of the articles in question was about “how the BfV was seeking extra funding to increase its online surveillance, and another about plans to set up a special unit to monitor social media, both based on leaked confidential documents.”
Let us be clear here: Germany has been trying, less than vigorously and definitely with limited success, to investigate NSA (and more recently BND) spying ever since the publications based on the documents Edward Snowden leaked from the NSA started. I have commented a number of times on the NSA Investigatory Committee in the German Bundestag (parliament) and on how much of its “investigation” is so toothless that it borders on the farcical. Granted, there are MPs on the committee – most notably those representing the parliamentary opposition – who are trying their best. Yet, the obstruction by the German government that the committee’s efforts have met with is also in evidence.
And now we have a spy chief accusing the editors of a website of treason that is evidently working to shed some real light on the secret – and probably not always benevolent – practices of the spy agencies. Okay, so the documents in question were secret documents from the BfV, not the BND (Germany’s foreign intelligence agency) which has come under fire for potentially helping the NSA work against Germany’s best interests. However, the BfV seems embarassingly powerless to protect Germany from the kind of spying that has been revealed over the past two years. Discussion of mass surveillance and the questionable dealings of Germany’s intelligence agencies with agencies in other countries, most notably the NSA, although not as widespread as some might like, has never died down in Germany. And now, for the first time in over 50 years, journalists are being investigated for treason or perhaps for raising uncomfortable questions. Wondering what exactly is going on here and questioning the motives behind the move against Netzpolitik.org seems more than justified.
DIE ZEIT suggests that the BfV chief is growing a little desperate in the face of investigations into NSA/BND spying and other inquiries into the methods and effectiveness of German intelligence agencies. Whether a fear of further embarrassing revelations or a wish to hit out against those who work to expose wrongdoing and thereby make life uncomfortable for the agencies is the reason for the move against Netzpolitik.org or not, the federal prosecutor, rather than to play along, certainly would do better to investigate the intelligence agencies themselves – in Germany and outside of Germany – subject as they are to ineffective oversight while conducting mass surveillance of millions of innocent people, unsuspected of any wrongdoing. As to the BfV: perhaps the agency would be better served (and serve Germany better) investigating the, as SPIEGEL columnist Sascha Lobo calls them, “terrorists” that are currently setting fire to homes for asylum-seekers in Germany, rather than to go after people who are trying to inform the German public.
After all, the German constitution does feature a paragraph that protects the free press and free speech. Unsurprisingly, the investigation against Netzpolitik.org and its sources has variously been called an attack on the free press and an attempt at intimidating a people who have, among other things, been live-blogging comprehensively and successfully from NSA Investigatory Committee meetings – so successfully, in fact, that rumour has it that even BND chief Gerhard Schindler reads the blog to keep up to date on witness statements made during committee sessions.
If journalism, as the famous quote has it, “is printing what someone else does not want printed” and “everything else is public relations,” then this move by the BfV chief and the federal prosecutor not only amounts to an (albeit twisted) accolade for Netzpolitik.org as an organisation conducting the kind of vital journalism that challenges the status quo, informs the public of what they need to know and might just strike fear in the hearts of those officials trying to keep wrongdoing a secret. It also once again testifies to the lengths German federal agencies are willing to go to obstruct this kind of reporting – and to keep the German public in the dark.
As of today, it may seem that Range himself is catching on. The federal prosecutor has just announced that his investigation rests, pending an expert opinion he has commissioned on whether what the journalists in question are doing actually amounts to treason. However, considering that the intention of commissioning said opinion was part of the proceedings from the start, this seems to be little more than semantics to appease an outraged public. After all, Range will be very aware of one specific historical precedent: in 1962, accusations of treason led to charges against German weekly DER SPIEGEL and its editors and journalists (DER SPIEGEL is much involved in the NSA-Snowden-reporting these days). That, too, caused a public outcry, and eventually led to the resignation of the then Intelligence Minister Franz Josef Strauss. At the time, Friedrich Siegburg wrote in Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ):
“Eine Freiheitsregung hat sich in unserem Leben bemerkbar gemacht. Sie ist bisher fast immer ausgeblieben, wenn man glaubte, auf sie hoffen zu dürfen. Aber nun ist sie zu spüren.”
Roughly translated: “A freedom movement is making itself heard in this country. Until now, whenever we believed we could hope for something like that, it remained absent. But we sense it now.”
In 21st century Germany, more than 52 years after DER SPIEGEL was exonerated and Strauss had to stand down, it seems that the free press is under attack once more, whether Range’s investigation “rests” for the time being or not. If the free press and German democracy will win out this time around remains to be seen. The initial reaction in Germany – one of indignation – gives grounds for hope. If more Germans finally start worrying about the state of democracy, civil rights and liberties in their country, then perhaps another “freedom movement”, which has so far remained absent in the wake of the Snowden and other mass surveillance revelations, will make itself known.
P.S.: If you understand German, you can take a look at the letter sent to Netzpolitik.org editors by the German federal prosecutor here.