German govt interfered with journalist treason investigation, top prosecutor says

Chief State Prosecutor Harald Range. © Alex Domanski
Germany's top federal prosecutor has accused Berlin of interfering in the treason investigation of two journalists, saying he was pressured into putting the probe on hold. He called the move an “intolerable interference with the freedom of justice.”

In a Tuesday press conference, Harald Range said he received instructions from the Justice Ministry to stop an external assessment he had commissioned in the investigation of two journalists from the news website Netzpolitik.org. 

That assessment was aimed at determining whether two separate documents published by the journalists on February 25 and April 15 amounted to revealing state secrets. The documents contained details of plans by the government to ask for more money to expand online surveillance capabilities, and to form a special unit to monitor social media in order to help combat terrorism. 

Range said the Justice Ministry told him to call off the assessment on Monday, after it heard that a preliminary independent legal evaluation had found that the document published on April 15 did, in fact, constitute a state secret.

"To influence an investigation because its possible result might not seem opportune is an intolerable interference with the freedom of justice," Range said, adding that this prompted him to share the news with the public.

The federal prosecutor did not provide details on why the government wanted the assessment to be stopped. However, Justice Minister Heiko Maas said last week that it was important to defend the independence of the press, stating that he doubted whether the publication of the documents would endanger Germany.

Maas' stance was backed by Angela Merkel, with the chancellor's office stating on Monday that the justice minister had her “full support.”

A spokesman for the Interior Ministry said that Minister Thomas de Maiziere also questioned the treason claims.

The German Journalists Association also condemned the investigation as an “impermissible attempt to silence two critical colleagues.”

But Range has taken a different view, stating that journalists have limits and must comply with the law.

"It's the judiciary's task to monitor compliance with the law but it can only fulfill this task if it is free from political interference and that's why the constitution protects the independence of the judiciary as well as the freedom of the press and of expression," he said on Tuesday.

A spokesman for the prosecutor's office declined to comment on whether it would continue its investigation, Reuters reported.

Range's stance has angered many politicians in Germany, with many calling for the prosecutor's resignation.

Christian Flisek, representative for the Social Democrats (SPD) in the German parliament's NSA inquiry, called the Netzpolitik probe “just embarrassing,” Deutsche Welle reported.

The deputy chairman of the Free Democratic Party (FDP), Wolfgang Kubicki, also chimed in.

“If the chief prosecutor ignores the constitutional right of freedom of the press and the task of journalists, then he is the wrong choice for the job,” he told the Welt am Sonntag newspaper.

But it's not just politicians whose feathers have been ruffled by Range's point of view. Hundreds of people took to the streets of Berlin on Saturday to protest against the treason allegations against journalists Markus Beckedahl and Andre Meister. 

Netzpolitik founder Beckedahl, who could face between one year and life in jail if found guilty of treason, says the move is aimed at intimidating journalists.

"We see this as clear attempt of intimidation by the federal government – or our security agencies, backed by the federal government – against investigative journalists and their sources," he told the DPA national news agency.

While charges of treason against journalists are rare in Germany, a similar case occurred in 1962, when Der Spiegel published Defense Ministry documents that were described as secret. Authorities raided the newspaper's offices, and two editors were jailed.