Sunday 25 September 2016

Row over treason inquiry rocks German political establishment

* Treason case raises questions over press freedom
* Prosecutor complains of political meddling in case
* Merkel backs decision to sack prosecutor

Paul Carrel

Published 05/08/2015 | 12:46

German Justice Minister Heiko Maas gives a statement to the media at the Ministry of Justice in Berlin, Germany, August 4, 2015. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch
German Justice Minister Heiko Maas gives a statement to the media at the Ministry of Justice in Berlin, Germany, August 4, 2015. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

Germany's justice minister came under fire on Wednesday for sacking the top public prosecutor in a row over a treason investigation that has exposed tensions between press freedom and protection of state secrets.

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Federal prosecutors have been investigating whether news website Netzpolitik.org revealed state secrets by publishing plans to step up state surveillance of online communications in Germany, a country strongly wedded to press freedom and privacy.

Germany's chief federal prosecutor Harald Range speaks to journalists in?Karlsruhe, Germany, Tuesday Aug. 4, 2015. ( Ralf Stockhoff/dpa via AP)
Germany's chief federal prosecutor Harald Range speaks to journalists in?Karlsruhe, Germany, Tuesday Aug. 4, 2015. ( Ralf Stockhoff/dpa via AP)

Justice Minister Heiko Maas said last week he doubted whether the journalists had intended to harm the state and that it was important to defend press independence, prompting federal prosecutor Harald Range to complain on Tuesday of "intolerable" political meddling in the investigation.

Maas responded swiftly by firing Range, saying his accusations of interference were "not comprehensible".

Politicians from across the spectrum condemned Maas's decision, though a government spokeswoman said he had the "full support" of Chancellor Angela Merkel on the matter.

Hans-Peter Uhl, a member of the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), sister party to Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU), said Maas's decision to fire Range was "strange behaviour".

"I regard this as excessive and therefore as wrong," Uhl told the Handelsblatt business daily.

Maas is from the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), junior coalition partner in Merkel's 'grand coalition'.

Wolfgang Kubicki of the opposition Free Democrats (FDP) accused Maas of trying to distract public attention from "his own glaring failures".

The parliamentary leader of the opposition Greens, Katrin Goering-Eckhardt, said Maas and Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere should explain their case before a special meeting of the judiciary committee of the lower house Bundestag.

"They must immediately explain who has what role in the attack on press freedom," she told the Passauer Neue Presse daily.

SENSITIVE

Privacy is an especially sensitive issue in Germany after the extensive surveillance by Communist East Germany's Stasi secret police and by the Gestapo in the Nazi era.

The focus in Germany on defending press freedom contrasts with developments in the United States, where former U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden is wanted for leaking details of massive US intelligence-gathering programs.

Prosecutors opened the probe against the website after a criminal complaint by Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), over articles about it that appeared on the Netzpolitik.org blog on Feb. 25 and April 15.

German media have criticised the investigation, saying it is the first time in more than 50 years that journalists faced charges of treason.

Last week, Range put the probe on hold pending a verdict from an independent expert opinion on whether the website had indeed revealed state secrets.

Reuters

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