Fearing a serious threat to press freedom, leading German newspapers and broadcasters have urged Chancellor Schröder to contest a European Court ruling curtailing media reporting on the private lives of celebrities.
Princess Caroline's court victory over German tabloids is the culprit
In an open letter to Chancellor Gerhard Schröder on Monday published in the Die Welt newspaper, editors from around 40 leading German dailies and newsmagazines sent a strong message: "Mr. Chancellor, stop the censorship," it read.
The matter relates to a June ruling by the European Court of Human Rights which said that photos published of Princess Caroline of Monaco in German magazines infringed on her privacy.
Caroline, who is married to Germany's Ernst August Prince of Hanover, first filed the lawsuit in 1993 when several German publications printed photos showing her sunbathing, cycling and shopping.
Princess Caroline after the court judgement in Strasbourg
The court said the public has no legitimate interest in knowing where Caroline goes on her vacations or what she does in her private life. It added that the private sphere of prominent persons in Germany was not adequately protected and that press freedom was given priority at the cost of privacy.
"Journalists will be muzzled"
The European Court of Human Rights also ruled that public figures would have to give their consent before the publication of material about their private lives -- both pictures and the written word -- could be permitted.
Journalists and editors fear that the decision will have major consequences for German media as a whole. "If the German government doesn't appeal the judgment then it would mean that all serious journalists will be muzzled," Monday's open letter to the chancellor read.
Editors in Germany fear that the freedom of the press is under siege following the European Court of Human Rights Ruling in June.
The editors, from newsmagazines Spiegel, Focus, Stern and leading mass-circulation daily Bild among others, said they were concerned that the European Court of Human Rights decision meant that prominent people could in future determine what was reported about them. "With that, the most important duty of the press -- to closely watch the powerful -- will be massively hindered," they said in the letter.
Separately, the chairman of public broadcaster ARD, Jobst Plog, and the head of public broadcaster ZDF, Markus Schächter, sent a joint letter to German Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries, stressing they would "strongly welcomed" the government appealing the European Court judgment. "There are fears that this special case will result in unregulated general restrictions for future picture reporting," they wrote.
Earlier decision overruled
The June 24th decision by the European Court of Human Rights overruled a 1999 decision in the same case by Germany's Constitutional Court.
The German court had ruled that, as a "person of contemporary history," Caroline would have to accept that photos of her in publicly accessible places could be published without her permission. With the exception of the photographs in which she appeared with her children, the German Constitutional Court dismissed her claim.
Matthias Prinz, Princess Caroline's lawyer, speaks to journalists in June.
Caroline's lawyers, who argued that her children were constantly being followed and that photographers frequently staked out their schools, took the case to the European Court of Human Rights.
The judges in Strasbourg said the German verdict contradicted the right to respect for private and family life, anchored in the European Convention on Human Rights.
A hard blow for democracy
The German editors protesting the ruling say, however, that as it stands, the decision would only permit reporting on public figures in their public role. How these people behave, who their business contacts are or who pays for their holidays would go unreported, according to the newsmen.
The editors also listed major domestic German news stories that would not have seen the light of day under the new ruling. They include the perks scandal which led to the resignation of the previous head of Germany's central bank, Ernst Welteke, and the investment activities of the former head of Germany's powerful metal workers' union, Franz Steinkühler.
Late last week the German Association of Newspaper Publishers publicly voiced their unease. An industry spokesman said that, if left unchallenged, the ruling would mark a hard blow for democracy.
German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder
The media chiefs have also pointed out that the German government has only four weeks left to contest the European Court's ruling.
A government spokesman said Chancellor Schröder was still considering the legal aspects of the case before deciding on the matter.