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Government puts pressure on British press

The British prime minister has threatened the Guardian newspaper over its revelations about the activities of the NSA. Experts say that would be scarcely possible in Germany.

The British government seems to know for sure the difference between good and evil: the intelligence services work to prevent terrorism, and that's good - and whoever reveals information about their work is their enemy, and that's bad. That was British Prime Minister David Cameron's message when he told parliament on Monday (28.10.2013) that the press would have to watch out: "If they don't demonstrate some social responsibility it will be very difficult for government to stand back and not to act."

He was targeting particularly the daily Guardian, which he accused of continuing to publish sensitive material - instead of destroying it as the paper had promised. It was Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald to whom Edward Snowden gave the first information about his former employer, the US National Security Agency (NSA), and it was the Guardian, which published the first reports.

'Impossible in Germany'

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron is seen addressing the House of Commons

Cameron told parliament that media would be expected to toe the line

Such a threat by a head of government would be "impossible to imagine" in Germany, says the investigative journalist Hans Leyendecker. He works for the "Süddeutsche Zeitung," which published Snowden's revelations in Germany. Leyendecker admits that politicians are always trying to influence coverage, but usually only after publication of an unfavorable article, and then only by threatening not to give information to the paper in the future or not to invite journalists to background briefings.

It's more of a problem when reporting on scandals in the business world, he says: "It happens quite often before publication that there are threats of lawyers and legal cases."

Damaging to politicians

Public broadcasters (like Deutsche Welle) are particularly vulnerable, says Michael Rediske of the German branch of Reporters Without Borders. That's because the broadcasters have supervisory boards made up of representatives of social groups, among them politicians and government ministers.

Wulff and his wife leave the room after his resignation speech Photo: Jörg Carstensen dpa

Wulff's resignation was made more likely one he had tried to threaten a newspaper

But, says Radiske, German media "are very good at defending themselves against political influence," and he points to the case of former German President Christian Wulff. Wulff phoned the editor of the "Bild" newspaper and issued threats to try to stop it from publishing a report about a dubious loan that Wulff was alleged to have taken out. The paper reported on the phone-call, which got the Wulff affair rolling. In the end, Wulff had to leave office. As Rediske says, any attempt to influence journalists is seen in Germany as scandalous: "It backfires on the politician."

National security more important in Britain

Cameron is not the only critic of the Guardian - other media have also gone on the attack. The Daily Mail called it "the paper that helps Britain's enemies." The Sun took up a proposal by a Conservative party politician and headlined "Prosecute Guardian for aiding terrorists."

Radiske sees a difference between Britain and other European countries: "Great Britain, as an ally of the US and following the terrorist attacks on the London Underground, which it has itself suffered, feels itself much more under threat, so that the people give a different priority to security as opposed to freedom."

For Germany, there are good historical reasons why terms like "interests of state" or "state secrets" are received with skepticism - as Rediske points out, these terms were misused during the rule of the Nazis.

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