Two German journalists are in court over defamation charges, and may have to pay four-figure fines. Journalist associations have criticized the case. Is press freedom in danger?
Allegations of corruption, a brothel with underage prostitutes, with high-ranking lawyers as alleged clients: this sensational story of unsolved criminal circumstances made headlines in Leipzig in the early 1990s.
The files have since been closed due to lack of evidence, but now the story has taken another twist. Some 20 years after the events in question, journalists Thomas Datt and Arndt Ginzel are in court over charges of defamation. Datt and Ginzel were convicted two years ago; on Tuesday (13.11.2012), they will appeal the ruling in a Dresden courtroom.
In articles on the website of the German weekly "Die Zeit" and in the newsmagazine "Der Spiegel", the freelance journalists critically reported about the investigation into the underage Leipzig brothel known as Jasmin. In the article in "Die Zeit", the work of individual police officers was highlighted - in particular, whether or not their investigation was compromised after an influential judge filed a disciplinary complaint against them.
Although the officers themselves were not offended by this statement, their supervisor, the Leipzig police chief, filed charges, most likely at the request of the Saxony Ministry of the Interior, according to journalist associations.
The relevant sentence in the article was found by the court to be libel, and Datt and Ginzel were ordered to each pay a penalty of 2,500 euros ($3,180). They were acquitted for the report in "Der Spiegel", but reprimanded, with the judge ordering them to disclose their sources.
Non-governmental organization Reporters without Borders has criticized the case against the two men. "The protection of sources is, according to the constitution, one of the most important elements of press freedom in Germany," said Christian Mihr, executive director of the organization's German section. This protection ensures that informants can speak to journalists without fear of repression.
Other journalists associations are also showing solidarity for Datt and Ginzel in the second round of litigation, and have emphasized the importance of press freedom.
"It is quite clearly an attempt to silence journalists - especially freelance journalists, who are much more vulnerable than those who have a strong publisher or station to back them," said Kajo Döhring, head of the German Journalists Association (DJV), in an interview with DW. In his view, the courts are using financial penalties to pressure journalists who already find themselves in a difficult economic situation.
Germanyranked 16th in press freedom
In addition, Reporters Without Borders has accused the courts of using criminal law instead of press law - not the normal practice, in the opinion of the organization. "And without making unjust comparisons, this situation is somewhat reminiscent of countries in which we classify press freedom as being rather questionable," said Mihr.
In his view, the offending sentence is an opinion that is covered by Article 5 of Germany's Basic Law. "The accusation here is that the defamation came about in the formulation of a question. It's quite shocking that the act of simply asking a question, which is of course a journalist's job, should be considered a crime," said Mihr.
In general, the organization ranks Germany quite highly in terms of press freedom. On its yearly ranking of all the countries in the world, Germany last ranked 16th. According to Reporters Without Borders, this is due to the fact that critical journalism is generally accepted, and because the country has a heightened awareness of press freedoms.
Despite the favorable ranking, DJV's Döhring remains critical. "These proceedings are proof that in Saxony, apparently, the authorities have the wrong understanding of democracy," he said, adding that he believes that journalists are not really accepted as being an essential part of the fourth estate.
Should the court decide against the two journalists in their appeal, their last hope would be Germany's Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe, the country's highest authority.
It was there that the so-called "Spiegel Affair" was decided in 1962, when employees at the newsmagazine were charged with treason over a critical article on the country's defense strategy. In the end, the judges in Karlsruhe suspended the case due to lack of evidence.
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