German intelligence officials kept tabs on the professional and private lives of journalists in a widening scandal as the agency celebrates its 50th year.
BND officials admit "mistakes"
Germany's intelligence agency, the BND, illegally spied on journalists and kept tabs on their professional and private lives, according to a report by the former chief judge of the Federal Court of Justice, Gerhard Schäfer, who on Wednesday presented the findings to a parliamentary committee investigating the agency.
According to the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper , the report also substantiated that the BND didn't just tail particular journalists. Instead, the agency arranged for journalists to tell on their colleagues in order to learn what they were working on. The BND was especially interested in editors at the weekly newsmagazine Der Spiegel.
Schäfer named five journalists who either offered to give information about their colleagues' activities to the agency or did so under questioning.
"Blatant attack on press freedom"
Even up to last fall, the BND collected such information on journalists. They also kept places frequented by them and their informants under watch.
Schäfer characterized the practices according to the Süddeutsche Zeitung as "disproportionate, clearly illegal" and a blatant "attack on freedom of the press."
The top-secret 170-page report also confirmed that a journalist for Stern magazine, who now works for Süddeutsche Zeitung, was tailed in January and February 1996. Another journalist for weekly newsmagazine Focus was monitored for years. And an editor for Südwest Presse daily caught the agency's attention. They especially kept in their sights the house of journalist Erich Schmidt-Eenboom in Weilhiem, who in 1993 published a book on the agency that angered the BND's top leadership.
Schmidt-Eenboom was watched and his files leafed through by spies
The report said that agents often destroyed files. One former journalist for Focus, today an author, was reportedly paid 600,000 marks (300,000 euros, $400,000) between 1982 and 1998 for information on his colleagues.
Focus acknowledged it had sacked a journalist last year for spying on his colleagues.
"We are astonished that the BND operated surveillance of journalists within Germany," a spokesman for the magazine said.
The intelligence agency admitted on Friday that mistakes had been made after the report was leaked and said that its top officials had held "amicable" meetings with the journalists concerned.
"Former BND President August Hanning and his successor Ernst Uhrlau had talks with the journalists six months ago," a spokesman for the agency said. "In that meeting, it was publicly recognized that mistakes had been made."
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The German journalists' association DJV said the revelations in the report were "scandalous" and demanded that the report be made public.
"It is unacceptable that a report with such explosive content is being dealt with behind closed doors," DJV head Michael Konken told AFP.
Government spokesman Thomas Steg said he could not comment on the top-secret report, which will be considered by parliamentary authorities in June.
"But let me assure you that the German government has always defended press freedom and the freedom of information as a fundamental right of our democracy," he told reporters.