Germany's highest court has ruled against the government for withholding information from a parliamentary enquiry into activities by the German foreign intelligence agency that included spying on members of parliament.
Berlin can no longer withhold information without a detailed reason
The Karlsruhe judges said in their ruling published on Thursday that the government must give a detailed explanation if it withholds information from parliamentarians. It is not enough, the judges stressed to issue a blanket refusal justified by the need to maintain secrecy. The government's claim that such information is classified, the judges confirmed, is "not plausible."
Parliamentarians' right to information is of great importance, the court said in its ruling, because their observation by intelligence services carries "considerable risks with regard to their independence."
In 2006, the opposition Green Party had requested information on whether the German foreign intelligence agency (BND) was gathering data on certain parliamentarians. The government refused to answer the request on grounds that this would compromise the agency's intelligence-gathering methods and thus have a negative effect on the work of the BND.
The government agreed only to provide information to the Parliamentary Supervisory Body, which oversees sensitive intelligence activities, and to the so-called Council of Elders, a panel that manages internal parliamentary affairs.
A step in the right direction
For Green Party member Jerzy Montag, it was important to reverse what appeard to be a trend of giving too much power to the government: "The government, parliamentarians, and parliament are the centre of the democratic state. And it is there that decisions need to be taken. The government is a part of the constitution but one that is voted for by parliamentarians. Parliament has to come first and then the government. And the court's decision has helped us with this."
The ruling will, Montag is convinced, make it more difficult for the government to dodge tricky questions. Every parliamentarian has a constitutional right to ask the government questions and the right to be given open and concrete answers, Montag says. "It is a large part of our parliamentary work and now there can be an end to the vague non-answers of the government."
Renate Kuenast, head of the Green parliamentary faction, declared that the constitutional court has "put the breaks on de-democratization."
Editor: Neil King