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Journalists take German spy law to court

January 30, 2018

Press groups have argued that Germany's surveillance laws are unconstitutional as they allow foreign reporters to be monitored. The case is raising awareness on social media under the slogan "No trust, no news."

German national symbol
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/H. Hanschke

Germany's Constitutional Court is reviewing the legality of the government's surveillance capabilities, after several journalists and rights activists lodged a complaint arguing that the law allows for the "virtually unrestricted" monitoring of foreign reporters.

The complaint aims to strip the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND)the country's intelligence agency, of its powers to mass surveil foreign journalists' communications, said Frank Überall, chairman of the German Federation of Journalists (DJV).

Read more: Taking stock of press freedom in Germany

As the law stands, journalists are technically no longer able to guarantee the protection of their source's identity, Überall added.

While the plaintiffs are mainly foreign reporters working on investigative stories, their claim has the support of multiple bodies, including the DJV, Reporters with Borders (RSF), the German Union of Journalists and Germany's Society for Civil Rights.

Journalists involved in the case also include Azerbaijani reporter Khadija Ismajilowa, whose investigative work won her the 2017 Alternative Nobel Prize, and Mexican Raul Olmos, one of the lead reporters involved in exposing the "Paradise Papers."

Confidential sources no guarantee

Sweeping new surveillance laws were passed by the Bundestag in October 2016. The reforms were drafted to explicitly allow the BND to direct espionage operations at EU institutions and other EU member states, provided they are aimed at gathering "information of significance for [Germany's] foreign policy and security."

The laws also permit the BND to cooperate with foreign intelligence services like the NSA if it serves specific purposes, including fighting terrorism, supporting the German military on foreign missions or collecting information concerning the safety of Germans abroad.

The German Basic Law: freedom of expression

While the law prohibits the monitoring of citizens in Germany and, to large extent, in the European Union, it specifies no restrictions on the surveillance of other nationals.

Germany's surveillance laws allowed the BND to "monitor journalists abroad with virtually no restrictions and share the information with other secret services," said Christian Mihr of Reporters without Borders Germany.

Mihr added that the laws also undermined the ability for German news organizations to operate and collaborate internationally. "Projects like the 'Paradise Papers' show that investigative journalism is increasingly emerging out of international cooperation," he said.

A report in German weekly Spiegel last year found that the BND had targeted reports in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria, tapping into their phone and fax machines. The reporters worked as correspondents for a number of international news outlets, including the New York Times and Reuters news agency.

No trust, no news

As part of the case, the plaintiffs also launched a social media campaign entitled "No trust, no news."

The campaign saw a number of reporters and editors on Tuesday post tweets containing nothing more than a single dot, a symbolic display of the state of news when reporters can't protect the identity of sources. 

dm/kms (dpa, AFP, epd)