Germany’s justice minister fired the country’s top prosecutor on Tuesday over the prosecutor’s treason investigation of two prominent bloggers, culminating a dayslong fight among public officials over the limits of press freedom.
The federal prosecutor general, Harald Range, said earlier Tuesday that the government in Berlin was inappropriately trying to block his investigation of the two journalists, who published classified documents on the domestic intelligence service’s plans to expand Internet surveillance.
But Justice Minister Heiko Maas countered hours later that Mr. Range’s claim was wrong. Mr. Maas said the prosecutor had in fact agreed on Friday to suspend the probe pending a legal review by the Justice Ministry. Mr. Maas—who had earlier expressed doubt that the journalists’ actions amounted to treason—said on Tuesday that he and the office of Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed that Mr. Range, who is 67 years old, should give up his post.
“I have let Federal Prosecutor General Range know that my trust in his service has suffered lasting damage,” Mr. Maas told reporters in a brief statement in Berlin. “As agreed with the Chancellery, I will ask the Federal President today to move him into retirement.”
Mr. Maas’s firing of Germany’s top prosecutor—who investigates sensitive terrorism cases and other major crimes—marked a crescendo in a case that has embarrassed Ms. Merkel’s government and touched off debate over how to balance freedom of speech, privacy, and security in the European Union’s most populous country.
The case triggered widespread criticism since Netzpolitik.org, a popular blog on digital rights issues, published a letter last week from Mr. Range notifying two of its journalists they were being investigated on suspicion of treason. The probe centered on two blog posts from February and April that disclosed plans by Germany’s domestic intelligence service to boost its surveillance of Internet traffic.
Mr. Range on Tuesday accused the Justice Ministry, which supervises the prosecutor general, of yielding to the criticism for political reasons. He said an external review he ordered had reached a preliminary conclusion that the legal interpretation underpinning the investigation was valid, but that the Justice Ministry ordered the review stopped.
“To influence investigations because their possible result appears politically inconvenient is an intolerable intrusion into the independence of the justice system,” Mr. Range said.
Mr. Maas responded later Tuesday that Mr. Range had agreed on Friday to cancel the external review without knowledge of the results and to rely on the Justice Ministry’s review instead.
“The actions and statements today by Federal Prosecutor General Range are not comprehensible and send the wrong message to the public,” Mr. Maas said.
Criminal investigations of journalists are rare in Germany, which watchdog organization Reporters Without Borders ranks as 12th-best in the world in its index of global press freedoms.
The most prominent case occurred in 1962, when the police raided the offices of the news magazine Der Spiegel and arrested several journalists on suspicion of treason after it published what the government claimed were secret details about weaknesses in the German military. Der Spiegel eventually prevailed in the ensuing legal battle.
But possible government overreach and surveillance have become hot-button issues again in Germany in the wake of former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s disclosures of global eavesdropping programs. Revelations of German spy agencies’ complicity in NSA surveillance have repeatedly put Ms. Merkel on the defensiveagainst domestic criticism that she wasn’t doing enough to protect civil rights at home.
After Netzpolitik.org revealed the treason investigation into journalists Andre Meisterand Markus Beckedahl, government officials quickly distanced themselves from it. Both the Justice Ministry and the Interior Ministry said they doubted that the journalists’ actions qualified as treason.
Mr. Meister said in a blog post on Tuesday that the investigation, sparked by a complaint from Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, was meant to scare journalists and potential sources.
“We know, of course, that in addition to us, our and other potential informants are meant to be intimidated,” Mr. Meister wrote.
A spokeswoman for Ms. Merkel said on Monday that Justice Minister Heiko Maas had her support and that freedom of the press had to be protected.
An investigation by the prosecutor general could result in charges against the journalists. German law stipulates that treason carries at least a one-year prison sentence.
On Sunday, Mr. Range said he had launched the investigation in May after a criminal complaint filed by the domestic intelligence agency, known by its German initials BfV, and that he had commissioned an external review to determine whether or not the documents disclosed by Netzpolitik.org were state secrets.
“It was necessary to take legal action against the publication of BfV documents classified as confidential or secret in order to secure the future ability of my agency to fight against extremism and terrorism,” BfV chief Hans-Georg Maassen told Sunday newspaper Bild am Sonntag.