The German justice minister late Tuesday fired the country's top public prosecutor, Harald Range, who had initiated a criminal probe against two journalists, ending a rare public dispute that raised questions about the German government's surveillance of social media sites.
Mr. Range had launched a criminal investigation of two bloggers after they published what appeared to be a secret government file detailing Germany's new push to surveil social media.
His dismissal came hours after he criticized Mr. Maas, his boss, in a news conference, for saying the justice minister was attempting to introduce German politics in the criminal probe. Mr. Maas is a member of Germany's Social Democratic Party, the junior party in Angela Merkel's conservative-led coalition government.
At a news conference, Mr. Range, 67 and a member of the Federal Democratic Party, claimed the government was trying to block his investigation of two German journalists working for Netzpolitik, a Berlin blog, who had published classified documents on the domestic intelligence service’s plans to increase Internet surveillance activities.
“To influence investigations because their possible result appears politically inconvenient is an intolerable intrusion into the independence of the justice system,” Mr. Range told reporters.
No federal prosecutor in Germany has ever accused the justice ministry of such intervention.
To influence investigations because their possible result appears politically inconvenient is an intolerable intrusion into the independence of the justice system. Harald Range,, Former Federal Prosecutor
Under German law, the justice ministry is allowed to give orders to the federal prosecutor but any intervention is dicey. This arrangement is an anomaly in the logic of separation of powers – long criticized by the German Federation of Judges.
Mr. Maas countered hours later with his own press conference, saying Mr. Range’s claim was wrong. The minister, who had expressed doubt about whether the journalists’ actions amounted to treason, said he and his prosecutor had agreed on Friday to suspend the investigation pending a legal review by the justice ministry.
“I have told federal prosecutor Range that my trust in his ability to fulfill the office has suffered lasting damage,” Mr. Mass said, explaining why he needed to replace him.
Mr. Maas’s firing of Germany’s top prosecutor, in agreement with the chancellery, has drawn huge attention to a case that has embarrassed Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government and fueled debate over balancing free speech, privacy and security in Europe’s largest economy.
Increased surveillance and possible government overreach have been hot issues in Germany ever since Edward Snowden, a former contractor for the U.S. National Security Agency, disclosed the government’s extensive eavesdropping programs, including revelations about the German spy agency collaborating with American intelligence operations.
André Meister and Markus Beckedahl, journalists with the website Netzpolitik.org, who have written extensively about the spying activities of Germany’s intelligence service BND, or Bundesnachrichtendienst, and NSA, published two blogs in February and April on the government’s Internet surveillance plans.
Mr. Range informed the two journalists that they were being investigated on suspicion of treason, which carries a prison sentence of at least one year in Germany.
The prosecutor had launched the investigation into the publication of these documents in May after a criminal complaint was filed by the German domestic intelligence agency, the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz, or BfV.
BfV head Hans-Georg Maassen, in an interview with the Bild newspaper on Sunday, said it was necessary to take legal action “to secure the future ability of my agency to fight extremism and terrorism.”
Mr. Range had also commissioned an external review to determine whether or not the published documents were state secrets. He said the review had reached a preliminary conclusion that the legal interpretation underpinning the investigation was valid.
Mr. Maas said he did not know the results of the review when he and Mr. Range agreed to cancel it and rely on the justice ministry’s own review instead.
Criminal investigations of journalists in Germany are seldom. The most prominent one involved the news magazine Der Spiegel. In 1962, several journalists were arrested on suspicion of treason after publishing what the government claimed was secret information about the weakness of the German military.
Reactions to the move by the justice minister to oust his federal prosecutor vary widely.
"This is either concentrated incomptence or something is rotten," said Mr. Beckedahl, the founder and editor in chief of the independent website Netzpolitik, which is financed primarily through dontations, in an interview with a German public broadcaster. "We want the investigation into charges of treason stopped."
Dunja Mijatovic, an expert on media freedom, with the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe, said in a statement that the threat of being charged with teason had sent a "chilling effect on journalists engaged in investigative reporting."
Sephan May, spokesman for domestic policy with the Social Democrats said Mr. Maas must now "explain why he had to interfere with the judicial independence."
But Joachim Wieland at the German University for Administrative Science in Speyer argued that with his manoeuvers, Mr. Range had put his boss in a catch 22 situation. "Mr. Maas had to act and had the right to do so," he told Handelsblatt. "Judiciary independence applies only to judges and not to prosecutors and therefore not to the federal prosectutor.”