German media and politicians have criticized an investigation by Federal Prosecutor General Harald Range into a pair of journalists. Reporters Andre Meister and Markus Beckedahl are believed to have quoted from an intelligence report categorized as "classified document - confidential" that proposed a new unit to monitor the Internet, particularly social networks.
Beckedahl, founder and editor-in-chief of Netzpolitik.org, told Deutschlandfunk that the investigation was "absurd" and possibly a warning shot to keep potential sources from talking to journalists.
According to German media, the prosecutor's office has called in a consultant to determine whether the published document was, in fact, classified as secret. Officials also plan to look into the reporters' unnamed sources. If found guilty, the reporters could face at least one year in prison.
Investigation widely panned
The subjects of the investigation weren't the only Germans to criticize the prosecutor's move as dangerous overreach. The Friday edition of Cologne's "Stadt-Anzeiger" newspaper quoted Renate Künast, a Green party member and the chair of the Bundestag's legal affairs committee, as saying that the investigation was a disgrace to the rule of law.
Künast cited the "massive spying and eavesdropping" operations conducted by the US National Security Agency in Germany as an issue on which the prosecutor had dropped the ball - and an example of Range's misplaced priorities.
"Nothing happened with that," she said, adding that "if there weren't investigative journalism, then we wouldn't know anything."
Georg Mascolo, who heads a research alliance of the broadcasters NDR and WDR and the daily "Süddeutsche Zeitung," spoke of even more sinister potential in the prosecutor's investigation.
"When journalists become criminals, when they must fear punishment for publishing certain information, then the risks for journalism are extremely high," he told the MDR radio station on Friday.
German journalists have not faced federal treason charges in over 50 years. In the last case, the Defense Ministry alleged that "Der Spiegel" news magazine had published state secrets in 1962, but the Federal Court of Justice ruled in 1965 that there was no evidence to support the charges. The case led to a strengthening of press freedoms not tested until 2015, with the opening of Range's investigation.
Beckedahl's blog Netzpolitik.org has won a number of awards for its reporting, including one from the German government as part of its "Land of Ideas" competition and Grimme Prize in 2014.
mkg/sms (epd, Reuters, AFP, dpa)