German media attack new spying legislation

Journalists fear a push to deter potential sources or whistleblowers coming forward

Interior minister Horst Seehofer insisted on Twitter that  the German government’s priority was “fighting terrorists and extremists, not journalists”.  Photograph: Felipe Trueba/EPA

Interior minister Horst Seehofer insisted on Twitter that the German government’s priority was “fighting terrorists and extremists, not journalists”. Photograph: Felipe Trueba/EPA

 

German news organisations are up in arms at proposals to abolish special legal provisions that protect journalists and media editorial systems from intelligence service surveillance.

At present German journalists and media organisations are ring-fenced from normal intelligence-gathering efforts, along with priests, lawyers, doctors and MPs. These five named professions enjoy additional hurdles to surveillance, in particular online spying, without a court order.

But Germany’s federal interior ministry is harmonising how agencies gather intelligence and a draft of the new legislation, seen by digital lobby groups, retains four professions as requiring special protection but, in certain conditions, drops journalists.

“With that a pillar of press freedom – the protection of sources – would collapse,” said Christian Mihr, chief executive of Reporters without Borders Germany.

Article 5 of Germany’s Basic Law, the postwar constitution, protects journalistic work from sources to publication.

Interior minister Horst Seehofer insisted on Twitter the German government’s priority was “fighting terrorists and extremists, not journalists”.

Meanwhile a ministry spokesman insisted it was “not intended” to reduce journalists’ special protections in the revised law.

Spying on journalists

Media organisations are not convinced that the government is interested in protecting their constitutional privileges and see a steady push to deter potential sources or whistleblowers coming forward.

Journalists point to a similar debate two years ago when new legal provisions were introduced to allow limited spying on journalists – with special court approval and proof of the measure’s proportionality.

German politicians argued then that journalists were not a clearly defined and protected professional group and that a dangerous propagandist could describe themselves as a journalist and enjoy extra protection.

The revised legislation proposed by Mr Seehofer, a Bavarian ally of chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), also proposes liberalising the conditions under which German intelligence can deploy so-called “Trojan Horse” spying software – at home and abroad.

Journalists with contacts to organised crime or Germany’s political fringes have reported coming under increased scrutiny of intelligence services. In 2017 some 32 journalists were excluded from the G20 summit in Hamburg because such work put them on an automated intelligence database.

Tapped phone lines

The same laws have seen a rise in international media organisations on the radar of German intelligence. In 2017 it was revealed that the BND had tapped dozens of phone lines at BBC headquarters in London and Afghanistan. New York Times and Reuters mobile and satellite phones in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria were also tapped.

The most recent draft legislation is on hold after it was stopped by the CDU/CSU coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party. The party’s justice minister, Katarina Barley, insisted the proposals went beyond what was agreed in the coalition agreement. But, after heading her party’s EU election campaign, Ms Barley is moving to the European Parliament.

A new attempt is likely to get the legislation past any new justice minister. For now, Berlin’s federal justice ministry says any new competences for the intelligence services must be “measured” and matched by equivalent improvements in parliamentary surveillance of intelligence services.