German launch of treason inquiry causes outrage

Prize-winning website published leaked intelligence documents earlier this year

Blogger Andre Meister and Markus Beckedahl, founder of  Netzpolitik.org. Meister labelled the charges of treason “absurd”. Photograph: EPA/Britta Pedersen

Blogger Andre Meister and Markus Beckedahl, founder of Netzpolitik.org. Meister labelled the charges of treason “absurd”. Photograph: EPA/Britta Pedersen

 

Federal prosecutors in Germany have come under attack for launching a treason investigation against a digital policy website – and then suspending it hours later amid public uproar.

Germany’s first treason investigation against a media organisation in half a century caused shock, particularly over its target. Netzpolitik.org is a prize-winning website that has led German reporting on the revelations of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and the resulting Berlin parliamentary inquiry prompted by his revelations of US mass surveillance of communications.

German prosecutors launched a preliminary investigation on foot of a complaint by the domestic intelligence service, the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV). It said Netzpolitik had published details from two leaked intelligence documents earlier this year.

‘Absurd’

Andre MeisterSüddeutsche Zeitung

“This is an attempt to curtail the media publishing damaging material and also an attempt to put pressure on sources to stop leaking in the future,” said Mr Meister.

One document, published in February, outlined a €2.75 million project by the BfV to collate data from social networks. Another document, published in April, presented details of a new unit being set up to broaden the BfV’s capacity to eavesdrop on social media.

Yesterday Netzpolitik was informed by letter it was being investigated for treason under paragraph 84 of the German criminal code. This defines treason as allowing “a state secret to come to the attention of an unauthorised person or to become known to the public in order to prejudice the Federal Republic of Germany or benefit a foreign power”.

Treason carries a minimum five years of jail time, though serious cases can result in a life sentence. The last high-profile case of treason in (West) Germany was the so-called Spiegel Affair of 1962.

News of the case prompted support from media organisations and readers. By lunchtime yesterday, chief federal prosecutor Harald Range said he was suspending the investigation pending a study into whether in fact the publication constituted treason.

Citing the “greater good” of press freedom, Mr Range said this had always been the plan and denied the announcement constituted a U-turn.

Federal justice minister Heiko Maas rowed into the affair, saying he “doubted” the journalists intended to damage German interests or assist a foreign power. He also announced plans to reform the law on treason.