On Jan. 14 and 15, a coalition of five major international media outlets and journalists sued Germany’s intelligence agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND). This marks the first time the agency has been put on trial in the country’s highest court in over 20 years.
This lawsuit follows a constitutional complaint filed in 2017 against the passing of a law regarding the BND’s investigative privileges. The plaintiffs argue that the law allows the BND to surveil international journalists and their informants without restriction, compromising the integrity of their journalistic endeavors.
German law currently allows the BND to “collect and evaluate information about foreigners abroad, without the agency having to have legal justification,” according to Deutsche Welle. The law stipulates that all communications by German citizens be filtered out and deleted, but communications by foreigners are open season. This means that phone conversations and internet traffic of foreign journalists can be seized and kept by the BND, which effectively obliterates the privacy of countless people.
If the agency can collect and evaluate every communication made by international journalists, key informants worldwide will no longer turn to their media with their revelations. Blaž Zgaga, a Slovenian journalist and member of the journalist coalition told The Real News Network that “investigative journalists already have quite difficult work.” He says that there is already a lot of pressure on journalists, such as issues with the legality of their reporting and a bombardment of threats. Agencies like the BND add to this pressure: “systemic surveillance is making our work much more difficult, because many possible sources… are just too afraid to contact us.”
Dr Joachim Wieland, a representative of German Federal Government argued that the case was void because foreigners do not enjoy the same fundamental rights as German citizens. This remark prompted a judge presiding over the trial to “ask if the principle of human dignity, anchored in the first paragraph of the post-war German constitution, is not applicable to non-German citizens elsewhere in the world,” according to the Irish Times. Clearly, human dignity was not taken into account when German lawmakers determined who and who isn’t subject to the BND’s violation of individuality.
In the information age, when privacy becomes a commodity, human dignity is often overlooked by government. This case is a huge landmark for holding governments accountable for their actions. Allowing agencies like the BND unfiltered access to virtually any foreign communication is an encroachment on individuality that should not go unquestioned. This lawsuit signals that people will no longer put up with the violation of their basic human right to privacy. However, it also brings up the question of whether or not governments will hold themselves accountable for their misdeeds. The question now rests on German constitutional court, who will release their verdict on the landmark case in the coming months.