Karlsruhe, Germany (dpa) – The German government defended the broad remit for surveillance held by the country’s foreign intelligence service (BND) on Tuesday in a court case brought by journalists calling this a restriction on press freedom.
Helge Braun, the head of the Chancellor’s Office, told the Federal Constitutional Court that given the fast pace of political developments in Iran, Iraq or Libya, reliable information is often required at short notice. Knowing who is behind an attack, and other questions of war or peace, had to be decided within a couple of hours.
Braun said Germany’s intelligence service needed information it could count on, as material provided by agencies from other countries could be prejudiced or distorted.
The functionality of intelligence gathering must not be impaired, Braun said, adding that BND information had already prevented attacks on Bundeswehr soldiers in Afghanistan and is also needed to counter kidnappings, terror threats and cyber attacks.
The court began hearing oral arguments in the case brought by Reporters Without Borders, six foreign journalists and a human rights lawyer who speak of mass global internet surveillance, which they say is unconstitutional.
“The law allows the foreign intelligence agency to spy on journalists abroad almost without restrictions and to share the information with other intelligence agencies. This is an unacceptable restriction of press freedom,” said Christian Mihr, executive director of Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Germany, which is a complainant in the case.
The BND sifts through masses of data for intelligence, without needing a concrete suspicion in order to do so. German citizens in theory enjoy protections against surveillance, although critics claim that their communications cannot realistically be filtered out of the intelligence agency’s scope.
The surveillance capacities of the BND, which has a workforce of around 6,500 people, were first defined legally in 2017. However, the complainants say the protections in place are inadequate.
Journalists say they are particularly affected, since many investigative reporters in Germany might be reluctant to work with international partners since that could open their work up to snooping.
However, there are concerns that a ruling in favour of the press alliance – not expected for several months yet – could hamper the work of German foreign intelligence.
“The repercussions would be fatal,” former BND president Gerhard Schindler told the RND media group.
The founding fathers of Germany’s Basic Law “would be turning in their graves” at the thought of Taliban or Islamic State communications being “protected by the constitution,” he said.
Ahead of the hearing, the President of the BND, Bruno Kahl, assured journalists that German citizens’ basic rights were being protected at home and abroad.
He added that the information provided by the BND’s strategic reconnaissance activities was essential for keeping the government informed. Kahl said he trusted in the wisdom of the court to recognize this.
The judges will hear arguments until Wednesday.