Last week, we reported that popular German digital rights blog Netzpolitik.org had been charged with treason as a result of its reporting on leaked documents about the German government’s mass surveillance plans. We later learned that no charges had in fact been filed (and corrected our report), but there were still signs that an investigation was underway, targeting either the blog itself or simply the suspected sources of the leaks. The blog has now confirmed [English translation here] authorities are investigating Netzpolitik journalists Markus Beckedahl and Andre Meister, along with an “unknown” source, on “suspicion of treason.”
The investigation is being conducted under § 94 of German's Criminal Code [English translation here], which considers the leaking of state secrets to a foreign power, or to anyone else with the intention of damaging the Republic, to be a crime, punishable of not less than one year in prison—and up to life, in "serious" cases.
Not surprisingly, Netzpolitik.org doesn't see this as an ordinary government response. Meister stated: “From the 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 as ‘treason.’”
And in regard to the investigation against Netzpolitik, Meister says:
Investigating the acclaimed media outlet netzpolitik.org as accomplices in treason charges is a direct attack on freedom of the press, which we thought was outlawed with the Constitutional Court ruling in the Cicero case 2007.
As we noted last week, the pending investigations relate to two articles Netzpolitik posted earlier this year. The first article [English translation here], published back in February, reported on the German government’s plans to collect and monitor troves of Internet data—including social media data—and on the government’s “secret budget” for the program. The article notes that the German government’s plans mimicked the mass data acquisition by the NSA and includes the full text of a leaked secret surveillance budget from 2013. The second article [English translation here], published in April, reported on the German secret service’s plan to set up a new Internet surveillance department dedicated to improving and extending the government’s mass surveillance capabilities—the “Erweiterten Fachunterstützung Internet” or “Extended Specialist Support Internet” department. The German version of the article includes the full text of a leaked document describing the government’s plans for the new unit.
Both the United States court system and the United Nations General Assembly have long recognized the importance of a free and unrestrained press. And as we noted last week, Germany has historically respected the global standard of protection for reporters covering state secrets, as demonstrated in the so-called “Spiegel Affair.”
In line with this global standard, Meister states:
The Federal Attorney General needs to drop the investigations against us and our alleged source(s) and instead investigate and charge out-of-control secret services, that are expanding their mass surveillance without public debate.
As we stated last week, mass surveillance by a government is undeniably a matter of deep public concern. Netzpolitik should not be punished for reporting on the German government’s plans to surveil—i.e., to spy on—its citizens.