German press at war over Snowden leaks

The NSA surveillance affair has been extensively covered in the German media. It has also sparked a battle of words.

In early August, the topic led to a sequence of accusations between two of the most influential German media outlets, the Bild Zeitung, a conservative daily tabloid newspaper, and Der Spiegel, a left-leaning weekly magazine. Both publications have the highest circulation in their respective sector in Germany.

Firing first, Bild accused Der Spiegel of spreading “nonsense saying that the German population is standing under “total surveillance.” Rather than total surveillance, writes the Bild Zeitung, the German intelligence service BND gave the NSA only information on one specific person of German heritage, an abducted former Spiegel journalist. Firing back, Der Spiegel claims the intentional omission of the case from its reporting was based on the journalistic principle not to endanger abductees through reporting – an unwritten journalistic law the Bild seemed to be willing to breach.

This publicly fought battle indicates the juxtaposition of opinions on the surveillance affair between left-leaning and conservative media. It is also a window into the diverging public opinion on the matter.

With the upcoming September federal elections in mind, the NSA affair has been widely discussed in German media with sentiment raging from understanding to harsh criticism. Although opinion polls show that the majority of the German population is disappointed with the German government’s reaction, many view the surveillance programs as a benevolent necessity.

The reasons for the strong interest of Germany’s media in this issue stem from the country’s history and its involvement in the current affair. The state surveillance by the Stasi, the secret police in East Germany during the Cold War, has led to a strong public opinion against an Orwellian state. Recent disclosures, such as the wiretapping of European embassies in Brussels and Washington, therefore, led to first outcries.

Further, with the NSA recording up to 60 million German metadata connections per day, Germany has been the European country under closest scrutiny by the US and its allies. What is more, according to the whistle-blower Edward Snowden, the German intelligence, and maybe even the German authorities as some journalists assume, have had knowledge of the NSA surveillance system for many years.

“German authorities are in bed with the NSA,” Snowden said in an interview with Der Spiegel.

This aspect is taken up and heavily criticized by Germany’s left-leaning media. According to Der Spiegel, the muted reaction of the current German chancellery demonstrates its connivance, while also showing its inability to prevail against the US. The distorted notion of security since 9/11 and the disruption of the fundamental pillars of the constitutional state – particularly distinctive in the US – are further focal points for the left-oriented media.

The USA has “fallen ill” since the attacks on the World Trade Center, writes Klaus Brinkbäumer, deputy editor of Der Spiegel. According to him, the US is willing to breach every international law if it serves its national security and, therefore, the War on Terror. In his opinion, the US has gone off the democratic track into the abysses of unlawfulness.

The “super-fundamental right of security”, as described by Germany’s Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich, “sneaked into legal and domestic policy discussions and outweighs all other fundamental rights,” Heribert Prantl, head of the domestic division of the Süddeutsche Zeitung, wrote in an editorial.

In contrast, the conservative Bild Zeitung justifies the intelligence services’ actions against the privacy of the public. They happened “for the benefit of the German population,” reads an editorial by Hugo Müller-Vogg.

“In times of global terror, more surveillance than we prefer becomes necessary,” writes Bild editor Daniel Killy.

Bild’s headline “Who wants to thwart terror must be informed earlier,” illustrates the propagated notion: the necessity of these surveillance programs for the greater good. While the Bild Zeitung expresses gratefulness towards the US for helping to secure the German population, it also agrees with the left-leaning media on the wrongness of the US wiretapping of European authorities.

As for Snowden, his depiction in German media also diverged along political lines. For the Bild Zeitung “Snowden is no hero.” His disclosure of practices of Western intelligence services is alleged to have aided the “enemy,” says Bild. From now on, argues the paper, it will become increasingly difficult to track down terrorists.

Der Spiegel depicts Snowden as a person who helped to “broaden the understanding of the architecture of the so-called security system.” As a ‘thank-you’ for his deeds, that have already led to a long overdue public discussion about the daily state surveillance and its consequences, Der Spiegel suggests that states around the world should offer Snowden asylum.

The Süddeutsche Zeitung, which depicts Snowden as a “classical political refugee,” goes even further by proposing Germany should give Snowden a temporary residence permit in order to enable him to fight for asylum on German soil.

“Edward Snowden (…) served the constitutional democracy with the disclosure of US intelligence practices; he started a discussion that can save the constitutional state in destroying itself; he revealed the misuse of power and the fundamental rights of European citizens and the fundamental rights of their elected representatives in the EU boards,” Heribert Prantl of Süddeutsche Zeitung writes in an op-ed.

However, the majority of the German public disagrees with these propositions. According to a recent opinion poll by YouGov, although 61 per cent of the German public view the disclosures as a positive action, 58 per cent would vote against an asylum for Snowden in Germany. While more than two-thirds of those polled are disappointed by the reaction of the German chancellery on the matter, 40 per cent approve state monitoring of private communication for security reasons.

But, extensive communication surveillance can have wide-ranged repercussions for the public, German media warn.

“The internet has become the life-world of many Germans,” writes Johannes Boie from the Süddeutsche Zeitung, “to monitor it, means to monitor whole lives.”

This article by Christina Hess was first published by Index on Censorship