Harassing Germany’s Media

The New York Times
August 10, 2007

Germany would seem to be one of the last places to find the government trying to intimidate its journalists these days. News of secret C.I.A. flights that whisked prisoners through the Continent to places where torture is allowed has horrified many Europeans in recent years. The German courts have been in the forefront of condemning ”extraordinary rendition” — the practice of loading terrorism suspects onto planes and secretly flying them to Afghanistan or Syria or other particularly dangerous spots for anyone behind bars.

A German court even issued a warrant in January for the arrest of 13 people said to be part of a Central Intelligence Agency ”abduction team” involved in the kidnapping and jailing of a German citizen in 2003. Khaled el-Masri, a German of Lebanese descent, was seized in Macedonia and flown to Afghanistan where he was brutally interrogated for five months before being released without charges ever being filed.

Yet despite such widespread concern, the government is investigating at least 17 German journalists from top publications, like Der Spiegel and Die Welt, for their articles about a parliamentary committee investigating these renditions. World news media organizations, including the Committee to Protect Journalists, have rightly demanded an end to what amounts to political intimidation by the German authorities in these cases.

Such attempts to stop the reporting on this important subject not only work against the public interest, in Germany they appear to be illegal. The German high court earlier this year approved a shield law that should protect journalists from this kind of harassment — a protection that so far Congress has withheld from the American press. On the most basic level, if a government prosecutes journalists to find the names of their sources, those sources disappear, and journalists can be intimidated into giving up hard-hitting investigations. What goes on inside a government becomes more and more secret, which is bad news for democracy, and what’s left for the public are official press releases.

Miklos Haraszti, the representative focusing on media freedom for the Organization for the Security and Cooperation in Europe, had it right in his letter earlier this week to Germany’s Minister of Justice. ”Initiating proceedings against the media merely in retaliation for their publishing, with the aim of deterring them from similar editorial decisions, is inadmissible in a society proud of its press freedoms.” Germany’s prosecutors should drop their attempts to intimidate their nation’s journalists.

© 2007 The New York Times Company. All Rights Reserved.