Reporters Without Borders

Police authorised to trace journalists’ phone calls

Published on Thursday 13 March 2003.
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Reporters Without Borders today voiced its concern at yesterday’s decision by Germany’s constitutional court authorising the police to trace journalists’ telephone calls in "serious" cases. The ruling poses a real danger for press freedom and is evidence of a worrying trend in the European Union.

"The lack of a precise definition of what constitutes a ’serious’ case leaves open the possibility of a dangerous interpretation of the law and a real threat to the profession of investigative journalist," Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Robert Ménard said in a letter to justice minister Brigitte Zypries.

"Journalists are not judicial auxiliaries," Ménard stressed. "If they can be put under surveillance at any moment and if their sources can be exposed and arrested, then journalists will no longer be able to report information that can only be obtained from sources in return for discretion - the kind of information that sometimes gives rise to judicial investigations."

Ménard warned that journalists could even suffer personally and their safety could be threatened as a result of this decision. "The least precaution would be to precisely define what cases can be considered ’serious’ and to allow a real public and parliamentary debate on this issue", the letter concluded.

The constitutional court, which is Germany’s highest court, ruled that telecommunication surveillance does not violate articles 10 and 19 of the constitution - which guarantee confidentiality of information - when a journalist is suspected of using telecommunication equipment to get in contact with a criminal. It falls to the investigating judge to decide on a case by case basis whether the requirements of press freedom should be allowed prevail over the fight against crime.

The ruling was issued as a result of appeals by German journalists who had filed complaints after being placed under surveillance by police. Two of the journalists were Udo Frank and Bate Thorn Bergmann of ZDF, German public television’s second channel. Frankfurt’s highest court ordered that a trace be put on their telephone calls in 1995 when they were investigating German real estate swindler Jürgen Schneider. This resulted in Schneider’s arrest. One of the journalists had nonetheless on his own initiative given the federal police a recording of a phone call with Schneider which was useful to investigators.

The Frankfurt prosecutor’s office in 1997 ordered telephone surveillance of Edith Kohn, a journalist with the weekly Stern, in order to track down Hans-Joachim Klein, a former member of the terrorist Red Army Fraction, who was in France. Kohn had got in touch with Klein as part of her work.

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