Germany's justice minister on Friday questioned a decision by prosecutors to open a treason investigation against two journalists, a move that prompted strong criticism from free speech activists.
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Website Netzpolitik.org, which covers digital rights issues, said Thursday it was notified by federal prosecutors of the probe against its staff and an unidentified source over two reports revealing authorities' plans to expand surveillance of online communication.
Treason investigations of journalists are rare in Germany. The most high-profile case occurred in 1962, when an investigation against the weekly magazine Der Spiegel prompted street demonstrations and the resignation of five Cabinet members in protest.
Justice Minister Heiko Maas said he told the chief federal prosecutor on Friday that he doubts the leaked documents cited in the website's reporting constituted a "state secret" whose publication would endanger Germany's security.
Maas, whose ministry oversees the federal prosecutor's office, also said he doubts that the journalists intended to damage Germany or benefit a foreign power, which could constitute treason.
The investigation stemmed from a criminal complaint filed by Germany's domestic intelligence agency.
Chief federal prosecutor Harald Range was quoted Friday as telling the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that his office had to open a formal investigation in order to commission an expert opinion on whether the website's reporting revealed state secrets.
He said that "the investigation will be paused until the opinion arrives" — a statement that Maas welcomed.
Range also said prosecutors would refrain from taking any "possible executive measures" in light of the importance of press freedom. His office did not immediately return a call seeking elaboration.
The German journalists union DJV called on Range to drop the probe entirely.