Baden-Württemberg’s Minister of the Interior, Thomas Strobl (CDU), feels relieved in the discussions about his role as a journalist’s secret informant. On Wednesday, the ministry in Stuttgart presented a report by the Berlin media lawyer Christian Schertz, according to which Strobl could not be accused of any legal action. Rather, he had to fulfill the information requirements of a press representative.
The background to the affair is disciplinary proceedings against a senior police officer in the country. In December, Strobl forwarded a letter from his lawyer to a journalist because it contained what he considered a disreputable offer of talks. The journalist reported about it, but without naming Strobl as a source. The Stuttgart public prosecutor’s office then investigated a possible breach of secrets, but discontinued the proceedings because the Ministry of the Interior did not want to grant the necessary authorization. The public prosecutor’s office did not initially learn anything about Strobl’s involvement in the newspaper report. When his role as an informant became surprisingly known at the beginning of May, the authority began new investigations, this time because of prohibited notifications about ongoing disciplinary proceedings, Section 353d of the Criminal Code.
In the Baden-Württemberg state parliament, the SPD, FDP and AfD opposition are demanding the resignation of the minister from the green-black government of Prime Minister Winfried Kretschmann (Greens). The factions of the SPD and FDP want to set up a committee of inquiry on Wednesday. The further course of the affair could develop significance beyond the national borders, since working as a confidential informant is part of a little-noticed practice of high officials in the federal and state governments in order to influence public debates. So far, Kretschmann has backed his minister. A response to a query from the Tagesspiegel as to whether the head of government himself maintains such public relations practices is still pending.
As a private individual, Strobl has now mandated the media lawyer Schertz to carry out a “holistic press and criminal law as well as media assessment” and leave this to the ministry. In it, the lawyer comes to the conclusion that criminal liability under paragraph 353d is excluded, since the lawyer’s letter was not an official document within the meaning of this criminal offense. The letter itself is also not an official secret, since it was received via the ministry’s fax connection and was accessible to a large number of people.
Above all, the press law assessment of the process is new. Here, expert Schertz decisively points out that Strobl, as the highest employer, was “entitled, if not even obliged,” to inform the journalist about the lawyer’s letter. Reason: This asked him to do so. This applies both to the state press law and to the Baden-Württemberg Freedom of Information Act. Since the allegations against the police inspector were “of the highest public interest”, Strobl was not allowed to refuse the requested information.
The Schertz report is apparently a reaction to the results of a test procedure by the Baden-Württemberg state data protection officer Stefan Brink, which the SPD parliamentary group had initiated. Brink considers the transmission of the lawyer’s letter to be illegal due to violations of data protection regulations. In his statement he spoke of a “non-transparent disclosure of protected information”. If at all, “general information for the public or the press as a whole would have been conceivable”. Here, however, the impression was given that confidential information had been “punctured”. From Brink’s point of view, this damages the “integrity of administrative procedures”.