Germany: A positive environment for free expression clouded by surveillance

As the G20 nations prepare to meet in St Petersburg, Russia in early September, Index on Censorship is exploring the nations’ records on free expression

21 Aug 2013
(Photo illustration: Shutterstock)

(Photo illustration: Shutterstock)

The situation with regards to freedom of expression in Germany is largely positive. Freedom of expression is protected by the German Constitution and basic laws. There is room for improvement, with Germany’s hate speech and libel laws being particularly severe.

Germany’s biggest limits on freedom of expression are due to its strict hate speech legislation which criminalises incitement to violence or hatred. Germany has particularly strict laws on the promotion or glorification of Nazism, or Holocaust denial with paragraph 130(3) of the German Criminal Code stipulating that those who ‘publicly or in an assembly approve, deny, or trivialise’ the Holocaust are liable to up to five years in prison or a monetary fine. Hate speech also extends to insulting segments of the population or a national, racial or religious group, or one characterised by its ethnic customs.

Germany still has strict provisions in the criminal code providing penalties for defamation of the President, insulting the Federal Republic, its states, the flag, and the national anthem. However, in 2000, the Federal Constitutional Court stated that even harsh political criticism, however unjust, does not constitute insulting the Republic. The criminal code however remains in place.

Freedom of religious expression is compromised through anti-blasphemy laws criminalising ‘offences related to religion and ideology’. Paragraph 166 of the Criminal Code prohibits defamation against ‘a church or other religious or ideological association within Germany, or their institutions or customs’. While very few people (just 10) have been convicted under the blasphemy legislation since 1969, the impact of hate speech legislation is seen more frequently, in particular in the prosecution of religious offences. In 2006, a pensioner in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia was given a 1-year suspended sentence for printing ‘The Koran, the Holy Koran’ on toilet paper, and sending it to 22 Mosques and Muslim community centres. In 2011, nine of the 18 operators of the far right online radio programme ‘Resistance Radio’ were given between 21 months and three years in prison for inciting hatred.

Germany has also seen heated debate over a widespread ban on religious symbols in public workplaces, especially affecting Muslim women who wear headscarves, which limits, as a result, freedom of religious expression. Half of Germany’s 16 states have, to various extents, banned teachers and civil servants from wearing religious symbols at work. Yet this is not applied equally to all religions, five states have made exceptions for Christian religious symbols.

Media freedom

Government and political interference in the media sector continues to raise concerns for media independence, with several incidents of interventions by politicians attempting to influence editorial policy.  In 2009, chief editor of public service broadcaster ZDF, Nikolaus Brender saw his contract terminated by a board featuring several politicians from the ruling Christian Democratic Union. Reporters Without Borders labelled it a ‘blatant violation of the principle of independence of public broadcasters.’ In 2011, the editor of Bild, the country’s biggest newspaper, received a voicemail message from President Christian Wulff, who threatened ‘war’ on the tabloid which reported on unusual personal loan he received.

Media plurality is strong among regional newspapers though due to financial pressure, media plurality declined in 2009 and 2010. Germany has one of the most concentrated TV markets in Europe, with 82% of total TV advertising spend shared among just 2 main TV stations in Germany. This gives a significant amount of influence to just 2 broadcasters and the majority of Germans still receive their daily news from the television.

The legal framework for the media is generally positive with accessible public interest defences for journalists in the law of privacy and defamation. However, Germany still has criminal provisions in its defamation law, which although unused, remain in the penal code. Germany’s civil defamation law is medium to low cost in comparison with other European jurisdictions, places the burden of proof on the claimant (a protection to freedom of expression) and contains a responsible journalism defence, although not a broader public interest defence.


The digital sphere in Germany has remained relatively free with judicial oversight over content takedown, protections for online privacy and a high level of internet penetration (83% of Germans are online). Germany’s Federal Court of Justice has ruled that access to the internet is a basic right in modern society. Section 184b of the German Penal Code ‘states that it is a criminal offense to disseminate, publicly display, present or otherwise make accessible any pornographic material showing sexual activities performed by, on or in the presence of a child.’ Germany has also ratified and put into the law the Council of Europe’s Convention on Cyber Crimes from 2001. Mobile operators also signed up to a Code of Conduct in 2005, which includes a commitment to a dual system of identification and authentication to protect children from harmful content. This was reaffirmed and made binding in 2007.

There are concerns over the increased use of surveillance of online communications, especially since a new antiterrorism law took effect in 2009.

In 2011, German authorities acquired the license for a type of spyware called FinSpy, produced by the British Gamma Group. This spyware can bypass anti-virus software and can extract data from the device it is targeting. Two reports by the German Parliamentary Control Panel, from 2009 and 2010, stated that several German intelligence units had monitored emails with the amount of surveillance increasing from 7 million pieces items in 2009 to 37 million in 2010. However, Germany’s Constitutional Court ruled in February that intelligence agencies are only allowed to collect data secretly from suspects’ computers if there is evidence that human lives or state property are in danger and the authorities must get a court order before they secretly upload spyware to a suspect’s computer.

Germany’s tough hate speech legislation also chills free speech online. In January 2012, Twitter adopted a new global policy allowing the company to delete tweets if countries request it, meaning that tweets become subject to Germany’s hate speech laws. The latest Twitter transparency report states that German government agencies asked for just 2 items to be removed. In October 2012, Twitter also blocked the account of a far-right German group, Better Hannover, after a police investigation.

Artistic freedom

Artists can work relatively freely in Germany. Freedom of expression in arts is protected under the Constitution, and is largely respected, especially for satire or comedy. Yet, the freedom of expression of artists is chilled through strict hate speech and blasphemy laws.

The German authorities very rarely use blasphemy laws against artists[xiv]. However, there have been several examples of art being subjected to censorship due to religious offence. In 2012, at the exhibition ‘Caricatura VI – The Comic Art – analog, digital, international’ in Kassel, a cartoon created by cartoonist Mario Lars was removed after protests that it offended religious sensibilities.

There is persistent sensitivity around artistic works depicting the Nazi period. In April 2013, the German version of an Icelandic author’s book was ‘censored’ by its publisher, who cut 30 chapters from Hallgrímur Helga’s novel, ‘The woman at 1000°’. Key passages about Hitler, concentration camps and SS were censored to fit the German market.

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