Those not keeping a close eye on international news over the summer may have missed a story that caused outrage in newsrooms here and abroad. Netzpolitik, a German news site, reported in the spring that the German domestic security agency was seeking extra funding for online surveillance. At the end of July, the public prosecutor opened a treason investigation against the site and its anonymous sources. German authorities dropped the charges, admitting that national security had not been threatened. While it’s good that investigation was halted, it should never have gone so far, particularly in a country with a history of secret police surveillance. Misguided charges of treason against the press are especially egregious, as they send a chilling message to reporters who carry out one of journalism’s most basic functions: serving as a watchdog for those in power.
The announcement of the treason investigation prompted a loud outcry. Thousands took to the streets in Berlin and hundreds around the world signed an open letter demanding “an end to the investigation into Netzpolitik.org and their unknown sources.” The letter included free speech advocates and journalists, including Julian Assange, Glenn Greenwald and NYU journalism professors Jay Rosen and Clay Shirky.
Given that domestic surveillance often exceeds its national security mandate — going on to target environmental activists, journalists and civil rights leaders — it seems likely that a similar abuse of power would also have occurred in Germany. Had the charges been sustained, it would have sent a worrying message to journalists around the world that they could be intimidated and investigated purely for doing their jobs. As activists noted, reporters are in the public service, not megaphones for the government.
Leaks and whistleblowers reveal corruption and other forms of wrongdoing in both private companies and the government, and must be protected. The practice of whistleblowing has a long, distinguished history in the United States. During the Vietnam War, Daniel Ellsberg leaked documents to The New York Times that showed that the Johnson government had lied to both the public and to Congress. Whistleblowers are not spies, despite the fact that both Ellsberg and Snowden were charged under the archaic 1917 Espionage Act.
A functioning, unthreatened free press is a cornerstone of a functioning democracy and a non-negotiable right of its citizens. Reporting on those in power is an essential function of good journalism, and its importance is codified in the German and U.S. constitutions. Charging individual reporters with treason anywhere has an undeniably chilling effect on reporters everywhere.
Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them. A version of this article appeared in the Saturday, August 29 print edition. Email Tommy Collison at [email protected]