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German government plans source prosecution as Greens push new whistleblower protection law

Reports about an impending prosecution shows that Germany is pulling in opposite directions on whistleblower protection. On Friday, Der Spiegel suggested that the federal government is planning to prosecute an unknown whistleblower for revealing  official secrets that were reported in that publication and the Süddeutsche Zeitung.

The news of this investigation comes as Germany’s official inquiry into surveillance, launched in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations, becomes increasingly mired in protracted arguments over the disclosure of information that implicates Germany’s spy agencies as much as it does the NSA. Despite attempts to restrict the documentation and witnesses available to the inquiry, it has so far revealed loopholes Germany’s signals intelligence agency, the BND, uses to circumvent the prohibition on German nationals and new details about controversial joint operations with the NSA.

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The German government has reacted poorly to these disclosures, to the point of warning of possible prosecution should further information reach the media.

Improving Germany’s whistleblower laws

Given that Germany is one of the countries that has shown the strongest support for Edward Snowden – a recent survey shows that the NSA whistleblower has better public recognition there than the US – the country’s own whistleblower protections are surprisingly poor. A 2011 judgment from the European Court of Human Rights has yet to be reflected in domestic law and, as a result, Germany’s truthtellers have to wait for employment tribunals to rule in their favour, by which point employer retaliation is already a fait accompli.

Last month, Germany’s Green representatives, led by Hans-Christian Stroebele, proposed new legislation to improve the situation. On his website, Stoebele explains that the bill is intended to “significantly improve whistleblowers’ protection from employer retaliation or dismissal and to improve legal certainty.”

This isn’t the first time the German Greens have tried to introduce a law like this, but this latest attempt is notable because it has the potential to do more than bring Germany into the mainstream of legal protections for whistleblowers. Provisions in the bill promise to erase the artificial divide that leads to national security whistleblowers facing severe retribution without the protections other public employees enjoy. Stroebele has been clear that the Bill specifically covers cases where a secret service employee “discloses confidential information to uncover a serious grievance, such as massive violations of fundamental rights.”

Protecting alleged sources before charge

Alleged sources who are under investigation and unable to come forward publicly find themselves in a particularly invidious position and in real need of support. Courage runs the only fund designed to guard alleged truthtellers who are obliged to remain anonymous.