The dawn raid on the offices of a German political magazine and one of its journalists prompted a parliamentary hearing and concerns of government tampering with the free press. The furor is good -- for press freedom.
German reporters are on shaky ground
Whether it’s the Judy Miller Case at the New York Times, or the recent raid of the offices of the German political magazine Cicero, the newsgathering process in the post 9/11 world is on new, shaky territory.
Miller went to prison for 85 days for refusing to reveal the source who told her the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame. Two months after Miller began serving her sentence in July, German police launched a lengthy investigation into Cicero investigative journalist Bruno Schirra after seizing 12 boxes of files and the hard disk from his computer in a September raid in Potsdam.
Wolfram Weimer, Cicero's editor in chief, says the raid was part of a strategy to discover the leak
Prosecutors suspect the journalist of being an "accessory to the divulgence of state secrets" after he authored an article on Iraqi-based terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi that cited top-secret police documents.
Schirra's publication says the target of the investigation is less the journalist than identifying who in the Federal Criminal Office leaked him the reports. Last week, media reported that prosecutors were mulling launching a separate investigation on Schirra after the discovery of classified documents on a German bribery scandal in the boxes they seized.
German journalism organizations say such investigations are on the rise, and some media analysts consider the Cicero case a dangerous precedent. Newspapers and editorial columns have been rife with accusations of a government-engineered attack on press freedom in Germany.
But Bettina Peters, director of programs at the European Journalism Centre in Maastricht, said that the case brings with it a silver lining.
"The fact that the parliament has acted may hopefully serve as an indication that this is not going to happen in the future," she said.
Interior Minister Otto Schily's colleagues had some harsh criticism for him
After Interior Minister Otto Schily, who gave federal police the approval to launch the raid, stiffly defended himself and his officers before a parliamentary commission last week, Green politician and committee member Volker Beck called his performance "condescending and authoritarian."
Beck was among several parliamentarians who announced they would consider introducing new legislation to better protect journalists and their reporting work. Even Schily's Social Democratic Party colleague Dieter Wiefelspütz demanded a "debate beyond the one case."
Evidence collected by the German Journalist's Federation (DJV) over the past decade indicates there might be a need for it. The DJV told the Financial Times that the frequency of raids on journalists' homes and offices in the past decade has increased -- even though none of the raids led to a conviction.
A chilling effect
Peters, whose organization trains journalists from around Europe, says she senses a greater hesitation among journalists post 9/11 when it comes to publishing critical material. Anti-terrorism legislation passed in Western countries like the UK, Germany and the US since the terrorist attacks in the New York and Washington has made the newsgathering process more difficult.
"These provisions are vague and have a chilling effect on press freedom," she said.
But as long as people are aware of the violations as they happen, officials can take the proper measures to respond. "The really bad news is if we didn't have Cicero cases because everyone keeps quiet," said Peters. "I think there is a danger that we're moving towards people being overly cautious."