“This affects all journalists” – Reporter ohne Grenzen sue German secret service

by Jane Whyatt and Michelle Trimborn

Reporter ohne Grenzen, the German section of Reporters Sans Frontières is suing the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), the German secret service, as they claim the BND is surveilling them. They are not only going to court to fight for their own rights, but to protect press freedom in Germany.

ROG screenshot 900 Screenshot of the ROG page, by ECPMF.

Matthias Spielkamp, journalist and executive board member of Reporter ohne Grenzen explains to the ECPMF the background of the legal action: “In our opinion, the BND has executed surveillance outside the rule of German law.” Even though the secret service does already face a lot of criticism for its practices and a parliamentary investigating committee (unofficially called the “NSA investigating committee”) is dealing with surveillance by BND and other secret services, this is not enough for Spielkamp and his colleagues: “For a real change we need to employ all means possible – and one of these is taking the BND to court.”

On 30 June 2015, Reporter ohne Grenzen went to the Federal Administrative Court to file a lawsuit against the German secret service because of violation of the Telecommunications Act. They accuse the BND of having surveilled their e-mail contact with foreign partners and journalists.

With this lawsuit that is still pending, Reporter ohne Grenzen do not act only on their own interests, but step in for the rights of all German journalists and to protect the free press:

The current surveillance practice affects not only our work, but the work of all our colleagues and all journalists. Nowadays, nobody can be sure anymore that his or her sources can be protected. It means that we have to be very careful when communicating.

But the prosecutors might have a difficult time proving their allegations, because they base their claims on a universal suspicion rather than concrete evidence: When it became known that the German secret service was executing strategic mass surveillance of telephone calls and e-mails, Reporter ohne Grenzen checked whether they could have been a target. As e-mails and calls are chosen for monitoring based on contacts between specific countries and the mentioning of specific key words, the staff at Reporter ohne Grenzen is now sure that they have matched those criteria – and thus must have been surveilled.

“There is basically no other way in which members of our organisation or people we are communicating with have been caught in that net”, Spielkamp says. On the other hand, it is very hard to prove this. “The BND is a secret service – this means they operate secretly and keep their information to themselves. We cannot get the information we need to prove our allegations from this agency.”

Still, the members of Reporter ohne Grenzen are sure that their e-mails and calls must be among the hundreds of millions of e-mails and meta-data that have been collected and analysed. If the Federal Administrative Court turns down their case, Spielkamp is prepared to take the case to the German Constitutional Court: “If the Federal Administrative Court decides that this practice of surveillance is in line with the German law, then it is the law that has to be tested – and we will argue that it is not constitutional.”

More information

You can support Reporter ohne Grenzen by signing their petition on the court case.

Creative Commons LicenseThis article is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.
Source information: This article was originally published by the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom –