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Top German court boosts press freedom

Germany's Federal Constitutional Court has rapped the security services on the knuckles for searching the offices of a political magazine to identify who leaked a confidential police report.

In what media are hailing as a significant reaffirmation of press freedom in Germany, the court ruled that the search had breached the constitution which enshrines the right of journalists to protect their sources.

The monthly political magazine Cicero had published an article about Islamic terrorist Abu Musab al Zarqawi in April 2005 in which it cited a confidential leaked internal report of the Federal Criminal Police Office or Bundeskriminalamt, Germany's version of the FBI.

Shortly afterwards the state prosecutors office in the city of Potsdam near Berlin, where Cicero is based, launched an investigation into the magazine's editor-in-chief Wolfram Weimer and the author of the article, Bruno Schirra.

It obtained a search warrant for the editorial offices, where police copied the hard drive of a PC, and for Schirra's private home. The case was later closed after the magazine paid a fine of €1,000. The search warrant was based on the assertion that the magazine had abetted the betrayal of official secrets by publishing confidential material.

The government last November defended the search, declaring it wasn't an unconstitutional breach of press freedom because press freedom no longer applies when laws are being broken. Journalists don't have a privilege to abet crimes, the government said.

Cicero's editor-in-chief Weimer had taken the case to the Constitutional Court arguing that the search had been aimed not at gaining evidence against the magazine but at identifying the agent who had passed on the information. That had breached the journalist's right to protect his sources, Weimer argued.

The court confirmed his view. "Searches and confiscations in an investigation into members of the press are illegal if they exclusively or predominantly serve the purpose of identifying an informant," said Constitutional Court President Hans-Jürgen Papier in his ruling.

Weimer said he was relieved. "The Federal Constitutional Court has defended and strengthened press freedom in Germany," he told reporters in the southwestern city of Karlsruhe where he had attended the announcement of the ruling.

The decision made the work of journalists in Germany "legally secure," he added.

The court's decision confirmed its decision in a similar case in 1966 affecting DER SPIEGEL magazine.

DER SPIEGEL had in 1962 cited confidential documents in an article about the lack of military defense readiness of the West German army. The magazine's offices were searched and the editor-in-chief at the time, Rudolf Augstein, and several other journalists were arrested.

Augstein was held in investigative custody for more than three months. He and the author of the article, Conrad Ahlers, were later acquitted of the charge of betraying official secrets.

Date posted: February 27, 2007 Last modified: May 23, 2018 Total views: 2291