Germany's upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat, has passed a bill that would provide better protection for victims of stalking. Journalists, however, fear it could turn them into criminals in the eyes of the law.
Stalking victims have had little recourse in Germany up to now
According to one survey, 12 percent of Germans have been the victim of a stalker, harassed by someone with letters, phone calls or SMS text messages, or kept a virtual prisoner in their homes as the stalker lurks across the street, or follows them whenever they step outside.
There have been some highly publicized cases, such as that of supermodel Claudia Schiffer or former tennis star Steffi Graf. But most stalking cases concern everyday individuals, stalked in nine out of 10 cases by someone they know. It's a form of psychological terror which can quickly turn victims' lives into a living hell.
Now Germany's Bundesrat wants to increase penalties for stalking and widen the definition of what constitutes the crime. Until now, police could not legally interfere often until it was too late, and some kind of assault had taken place. The new bill passed by the upper chamber calls for stalking to be punishable by law if the harassment has "seriously encroached upon the victim's lifestyle."
"All too often, the victims are forced to completely change the circumstances in which they live in order to escape from their tormentors," said Christean Wagner, justice minister in the state of Hesse. He added the problem of stalking can become especially serious when romantic partnerships end, and according to him, about half of all cases can be traced back to a relationship gone sour.
The bill says those who "strongly harass" another person should serve one to three years in jail or be forced to pay a fine. In more serious cases, where the life of the victim is threatened or he or she is seriously injured, longer prison terms up to ten years could be imposed.
The bill must first pass the lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, before becoming law. The proposed legislation is not expected to go to the lower house for several months.
Scientists who have studied stalking say it often begins with low-level harassment, such as calling often or sending text messages. But the stalking can then escalate, with the perpetrator physically observing and following the victim.
"It can also lead to physical violence, rape and even murder," psychologist Jens Hoffmann of Dresden's Technical University told the Sächsische Zeitung newspaper.
He pointed to a recent case in the city of Bremen where a woman was killed by her stalker, the husband from whom she was separated.
Bad for journalists?
Criticism has come from journalists' groups, who fear that if the bill becomes law, they could be made into criminals just for doing their jobs. According to the Federal Association of German Newspaper Publishes (BDVZ), the bill could endanger the rights of journalists, who, for example, are involved in an investigation about a person.
Der Chef der Bundesagentur fuer Arbeit Florian Gerster beantwortet am Dienstag, 20. Januar 2004, in Frankfurt am Main Fragen von Journalisten. Nach Medienberichten soll es angeblich neue Unregelmaessigkeiten bei der Vergabe von Millionenauftraegen gegeben haben. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)
The group said a future law must provide protection from psychological terror, but adds that journalists are not stalkers, and what in the media would be considered "intensive investigation" could be interpreted as stalking, and land the journalist involved in jail.
The Association of Magazine Publishers (VDZ) echoed those concerns, saying that a clause should be inserted into the legislation that ensures that reporters on the job would not be classified as stalkers.
The German Police Union (DPOlG) welcomed the move of the Bundesrat, saying increased penalties for stalking are long overdue.
"It is incomprehensible that up to now, a shoplifter was punished more severely than a stalker was, who often drove his victims to the point of madness," Anke Bernhard, the federal women's commissioner for the DPOlG, told AFP news agency.
The justice minister of Bavaria, Beate Merk, also threw her support behind the measure.
"Stalking is not a peccadillo of a love-sick admirer, but a serious crime," she said.
In the US, Canada, Australia and Belgium, this form of psychological terror is already classified as a punishable act.