German Justice Minister Fires Top Prosecutor Over 'Treason' Probe Into Journalists After War Of Words
from the escalation-issue dept
We’ve written a couple stories already about the ridiculous (and chilling) decision by German prosecutors to investigate the news site Netzpolitik for treason in publishing a couple of stories about plans to expand German surveillance capabilities and powers, with whistleblowers as sources. Things have become fairly heated over the past few days and appear to have just resulted in the country’s Justice Minister firing the top prosecutor behind the investigation.
On Friday, Justice Minister Heiko Maas said publicly that he didn’t think the investigation was appropriate and that he had told the chief federal prosecutor Harald Range exactly that. Following this, Range announced that he was pausing the investigation “for the good of press and media freedom,” but then lashed out angrily at Maas, saying that his statements were “an intolerable encroachment on the independence of the judiciary.” Details of internal discussions quickly slipped out into the public, after Range had told Maas he was intending to continue the investigation after an “independent” expert he had brought on determined that the documents revealed by Netzpolitik did contain state secrets.
[Range] said the independent expert had agreed that the documents appeared to be state secrets, as asserted by domestic security agency chief Hans-Georg Maassen.
Range said he had informed the justice minister of this but was told “to immediately stop” the process of commissioning outside advice.
The chief prosecutor said he had complied, but he added angrily that “to exert influence on an investigation because its possible outcome may not be politically opportune represents an intolerable encroachment on the independence of the judiciary”.
“I saw myself obliged to inform the public about this,” he added in a statement.
On the broader Netzpolitik case, he said: “The freedom of the press and of expression is a valuable asset.
“But this freedom, including on the Internet, is not limitless. It does not absolve journalists of the duty to comply with the law.”
And… in response to that, it appears that Maas has fired Range:
“I have told federal prosecutor Range that my trust in his ability to fulfill the office has suffered lasting damage and therefore in agreement with the Chancellery I will request his retirement today,” Maas told reporters in Berlin.
Maas also claims that Range’s statement about Maas telling him to stop commissioning outside advice was “false.”
The whole thing appears to have turned into quite the soap opera. Over the weekend, I had a long discussion about this case with someone quite knowledgeable about German law and legal process, who noted that the situation may not be quite as troubling as some are making it out to be, because all of this needs to happen in public under German law (including the notification of the investigation) unlike the American system, under which a grand jury can proceed with an investigation for years in total secrecy. And while the publicity around this investigation appears to be having an impact on (hopefully) curtailing and ending this investigation, it does not change the fact that the investigation happened in the first place, or the kind of chilling effects that it is clearly creating for journalists and whistleblowers alike.