Press Freedom Index The Future of Press Freedom in Germany

Parliament building in Berlin with article 5 of the Basic Law engraved.
Parliament building in Berlin with article 5 of the Basic Law engraved. | Photo (detail): © Klaaschwotzer via Wikimedia.Commons, Licence Universal (CC0 1.0)

Actually, the state of freedom of the press in Germany is not at all bad. Surveillance of the internet, however, shows that government control can threaten press freedom – even in Germany.

If you want to know how freedom of the press is doing, then you should read the Press Freedom Index, annually published by the organization Reporters without Borders (RWB), a kind of ranking of media freedom in the world. The index has been published since 2002 and lists violent attacks on journalists, abductions, arrests and murders. But it also attempts to show the less obvious measures taken against freedom of the press in 179 countries, such as government interference and economic constraints. Currently, Germany occupies 17th place – a good result.

The danger of data preservation

Reporters without Borders sees the greatest threat to freedom of the press in Germany in the surveillance of the internet and the storage of connection data. The NSA scandal is the heaviest blow worldwide in recent years against press freedom, says Christian Mihr, Executive Director of the German section of Reporters without Borders. The comprehensive monitoring of the internet, he believes, threatens to undermine freedom of the press. The focus of Mihr’s criticism with respect to Germany is so-called data preservation, which, according to the coalition agreement, the Black-Red government wants to re-introduce. Even in the absence of concrete suspicion, the internet and telephone connection data of all citizens could then be stored up to six months. What informant would get in contact with a journalist if he had to fear being exposed because it is permissible to trace phone calls and e-mails? For this reason Mihr has called for a new law that does not allow the blanket storage of connection data but allows data preservation only in the case of a concrete suspicion.

Whistleblowers

Whistleblowers, who can burn hundreds of thousands of documents onto a CD in the shortest space of time and pass them on to journalists, are a great cause of concern to many states, believes Georg Mascolo, the editor-in-chief until 2013 of the German news magazine Der Spiegel and one of the most highly respected investigative journalists in Germany. In the United States and England, journalists who worked with the material distributed by the whistleblower Edward Snowden were put under political pressure and treated as criminals. In Germany, however, no similar development is yet to be seen – especially as German journalists have an ally in the Federal Constitutional Court.

Verdicts in favour of press freedom

The highest German court has in fact in recent decades repeatedly strengthened freedom of the press with fundamental rulings, most recently on 27 February 2007 with the so-called “Cicero Verdict”. A freelance journalist had cited for an article confidential files of the Federal Criminal Police Office. His office and the editorial offices of the magazine Cicero, for which he was working, were then searched. The presiding judge condemned the raid on the editorial offices as unconstitutional because it violated the Basic Law’s guarantee of press freedom.

There shall be no censorship

In Germany press freedom is established in law. Article 5 of the Basic Law (that is, the German constitution) guarantees freedom of opinion, information, press, radio and film: “Every person shall have the right freely to express and disseminate his opinions in speech, writing and pictures and to inform himself using publicly available sources without hindrance. Freedom of the press and freedom of reporting by means of broadcasting and film shall be guaranteed. There shall be no censorship.” The sole restriction of this freedom lies “in the regulations of general laws, general legislation for the protection of young people and the right to personal honour”.

The individual German states have adopted additional state press laws. In the first article they also invariably emphasize again that “The press is free. It serves the basic free and democratic order”. Then regulations, differing from state to state, are laid down for the journalists’ duty of care in the treatment of information and their right to information: “The authorities have the obligation to provide representatives of the press with information required for the fulfilment of their public duty”. Despite this, however, Reporters without Borders has repeatedly criticized in recent years the difficulty with which journalists are provided access to official information, since requests are often answered only slowly and at a charge.

Strong protection against state interference

On 1 August 2012 the new freedom of the press law, which more strongly protects journalists conducting investigative research against state interference, went into force. Journalists can no longer be prosecuted for breach of secrecy if they accept, evaluate or publish material from informants in government positions. Moreover, neither may editorial offices be searched nor material seized – except under strong suspicion of involvement in a criminal offence. This is a law that could yet become important for journalists and press freedom in Germany. For perhaps the next Edward Snowden will come from Germany.