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Press freedom (un)limited

Jennifer Fraczek /aiMay 17, 2013

Western democracies, like the US, are seen as safe havens for press freedom. Yet, the ongoing AP scandal suggests that surveillance of journalists is no taboo. What is the situation in Germany?

Image: Fotolia/picsfive

There had been a serious information leak, causing nothing less than a threat to US citizens - that's how US Secretary of Justice Eric Holder justified US government surveillance of Associated Press (AP) journalists. Surveillance in this case meant the collection of telephone records, allowing for the localization of the journalist's  confidential sources.

Among the media, this has caused considerable outrage - both in the US and abroad, including Germany. The German journalist's association (DJV) has condemned the surveillance as an "act against freedom of the press." After all, without the - often anonymous - sources, investigative reporting would be close to impossible. At the same time, however, there is little fear that German journalists might be in for something similar.

What is a "threat to security"?

"For Germany, this is something unthinkable," Michael Rediske, the head of the Berlin-Brandenburg branch of the journalist's association told DW.

A man looks down at his smartphone as he walks past the offices of the Associated Press in Manhattan (photo: Adrees Latif)
The US Justice Ministery spied on phone data by the AP news agencyImage: Reuters/Adrees Latif

The Federal Constitutional Court, being the warden of Germany's constitution where press freedom is enshrined, sees this as a far too important value, Rediske said. 

As an example, he mentioned the so-called "Cicero Affair:" In 2005, German law enforcement searched the offices of "Cicero" magazine after it had published information form a confidential government file. Following the search, the publication filed a lawsuit - and won.

In the case of the United States, there is a concern for terror and the looming threat it poses. This plays an important role when dealing with issues of press freedom, said Wolfgang Donsbach of Dresden Technical University (TU). While there is no way to justify the government taking up such measures, it is at least partly understandable, he explained.

To justify measures like these, they are often linked to security issues. It's a point that Rediske, who also heads the German section of Reporters without Borders, doesn't want to accept. "If its about preventing a crime, journalists will be reasonable enough not to publish information. But to simply classify information as 'relevant to security' is a well-known game the authorities play," Rediske said.

What is an attack on press freedom

When journalists in Germany get confidential information from people with access to such material they have the right to publish it, Rediske stressed. The person who possibly breaks the law in such a case is the informant, which is why he or she usually wants to remain anonymous.

What might be risky for journalists is if they ask informants to pass documents. "This might be seen as incitement to betray state secrets and that's illegal. However, drawing the line between receiving documents and incitement is very difficult," Rediske explained, arguing that that was a point where journalists should be better protected.

Michael Rediske (photo: Michael Gottschalk/dapd)
Rediske says journalists still need to be better protected when working with informantsImage: dapd

Surveillance and raids are one thing; attempting to influence the media is a different matter. Again and again, there are cases in which the offices of politicians, or the politicians themselves, call up an editor to influence a report, or prevent it from getting published at all.

Wolfgang Donsbach does not see the latter as an attack on press freedom. "It's only a danger for press freedom when someone puts pressure on the media and the fact is kept under wraps." In Germany, that is not the case because such incidents quickly become public and are then debated openly and critically. In Rediske' view, media representatives are also responsible. If they give in to such pressures, they are bad journalists, he says.

Press freedom ranking

Germany is ranked 17th in the press freedom table published by Reporters without Borders. At the top are the Scandinavian countries. They have even better protection for informants, Rediske explained.

The US is ranked 32, partly because the protection of informants is not fully guaranteed, especially in relation to security issues. "Judges in the US sometimes sentence journalists to contempt of court, which can lead to a jail term or fine, if they refuse to name their informants," he said.