Sat, Dec. 09, 2006

Agent Lehmann Censorship

CK - Washington.   German law protects the privacy of not so famous persons by limiting the publication of names and pictures in the media. The famous enjoy protection in intimate matters. As a result, the press covers many events involving the not-so-famous by using initials instead of full names. For similar reasons, many media, including blogs, redact names of parties, lawyers, witnesses and judges out of opinions published by courts despite the fact that the proceedings are public and opinons are released Im Namen des Volkes, i.e. in the name of the people.

Another big step toward censorship involves publisher Verlag 8. Mai GmbH, its newspaper junge Welt and a federal counter-terrorism agent known variously as Gerhard L. and Lehmann. The latter has become famous because of parliamentary investigations, TV appearances, a book and media reports.

On December 7, 2006, the Berlin district court held hearings on two matters, docket numbers 27.0.1139/06 and 27.0.722/06. They concerned the issue of whether or not the paper had incorrectly reported that Gerhard L. had been identified, with a certainty of 90 percent, as secret agent Sam who reportedly interviewed German-Lebanese dual citizen Khaled el Masri at the Salt Pit detention facility in Afghanistan.

Gerhard L., identified in reports as a First Criminal Chief Commissioner, 1. KHK, at the Federal Criminal Agency, Bundeskriminalamt, is said to have asked the court and the press to report his assertion that he is not Sam. Lehmann is thought of by many as a German James Bond.

According to Junge Welt, the court ordered the paper not to report on the hearing, while agreeing with the paper that it had not improperly reported on the identification issue. The court lifted a TRO against the paper but enjoined it from covering the hearing. Junge Welt and other media, including bloggers at the hearing, consider the court's attempt to restrict reports on such hearings a massive attack on the freedom of the press.

The decision raises important issues. Clearly, Lehmann has achieved notoriety. Generally, and under the German rules governing the media and the famous, reports on public matters involving him should remain uncensored. Arguably, a low-level official whose ministerial functions push him into the limelight retains the privacy expectations of a not-famous person.

Lehmann's interaction with the media may have diminished that expectation, however, so that the ruling would appear inappropriate. To the extent there is any truth to published allegations that the court ordered Neue Welt muzzled to protect itself from criticism, the decision seems outrageously wrong.

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