August 31, 2017

RSF criticizes Germany’s ban of leftist website as constitutionally questionable

German interior minister Thomas de Maizière © THIERRY CHARLIER / AFP
Reporters Without Borders criticizes as constitutionally questionable the ban announced by Germany’s ministry of interior against linksunten.indymedia, an online portal deemed left-wing extremist by security authorities.

German interior minister Thomas de Maizière announced the website’s ban last Friday, invoking the law of associations by classifying its group of operators as an association which he declared dissolved. De Maizière called the portal “the most influential online platform of violent left-wing extremists in Germany”, saying the latter had used the website for years for “spreading posts with criminal and anti-constitutional contents”. His ministry cited examples such as calls for violent protests and claims of responsibility for arson attacks posted on the platform, including in the run-up to violent protests against the G20 summit in Hamburg in early July. Other examples included calls for acts of violence targeting police officers and dissenters as well as repeated post giving detailed instructions for building “Molotov cocktails” and time-controlled arson bombs.

Radical offshoot of international anti-globalist network

Linksunten.indymedia is a radical offshoot of Indymedia, an international network of anti-globalization media activist founded after the 1999 WTO summit in Seattle to help create an alternative media public. The network spread to more than 60 counties including Germany, where became a discussion platform for various leftist alternative groups. After internal disputes, a group of more radically-minded activists in the South-West of Germany split off and created – the name “linksunten” (“bottom left”) alludes both to the group’s geographical origins on the German map and to the leftist underground to which some of its supporters felt drawn.

The portal was used by activists to coordinate protests against racism or nuclear waste transports, to discuss the political consequences of a series of Neonazi terror attacks or to exchange experiences, opinions and analyses. Activists also used it as a platform to track right-wing extremism in Germany. One recent post there was a protocol of an internal WhatsApp chat group of the populist AfD party that was widely discussed in German media because it included radical views such as calls for rigorous media controls or to overthrow the political system. Contributors usually wrote their posts anonymously, but according to the interior ministry they were moderated by the website’s administrators afterwards.

Watched by security authorities

German authorities had been watching the website’s activities for some time. Some media reports quoted security sources as saying they had had difficulties identifying the portal’s operators due to the latter’s secretive ways of working. They also said numerous criminal complaints had been made because of criminal content on the website, but the investigations had to be dropped because the authors could not be identified.

However, as last week’s operation shows, authorities have by now been able to identify several alleged administrators of the website. It is therefore not evident why they neither summoned these to delete the incriminated posts nor sued them, choosing instead to ban the website as a whole.

G20 accreditation withdrawals based on faulty or illegally stored information

According to unsourced media reports, two of the three supposed administrators of the website were among the 32 journalists whose accreditations were withdrawn during the G20 summit in Hamburg last month, and at least one of them was considered by security authorities to be part of the “pro-violence left-wing extremist scene”.

However, the reference to the G20 summit raises questions because at least ten of the 32 accreditation withdrawals have by now been shown to be based at least partly on either false assumptions or on information illegally stored in police databases such as accusations of criminal acts that have long been cleared in court. After ARD TV published its findings on these cases on Thursday, the interior ministry admitted that in at least four cases the decision to withdraw the accreditation was wrong.

It is becoming more and more clear that during the G20 summit German security authorities restricted some journalists’ ability to work and stigmatized them as supposed perpetrators of violence based on faulty and in parts illegally stored information,” said RSF Germany’s Mihr. “The Federal Office of Criminal Investigation obviously stores information of questionable security relevance on a large scale as it thinks best. The federal government now has to explain quickly how many journalists have been affected and how this practice is to be stopped.

Germany is ranked 16th among 180 countries on RSF’s annual World Press Freedom Index.