GERMANY: Draft “Trade Secret Protection Act” in Germany threatens whistleblowers and press freedom

(European Centre for Press and Media FreedomOn Friday, 15. February 2019, the German Parliament will debate motions by the Greens and Die Linke to amend the draft Law to protect trade secrets from illegal acquisition and illegal use and disclosure (GeschGehGe, Federal Law 19/4724). With this law, the government seeks to implement EU Directive 2016/943, which requires EU member states to protect information about confidential business secrets.

The central weaknesses of the law were already identified at the December 2018 hearing of the Parliament Legal Committee: Journalists are not explicitly excluded from the regulations; the term “trade secret” is murky; whistleblowers may have to disclose their informants’ identities. Even if courts decide in favour of freedom of the press in case of doubt, the law could trigger a flood of proceedings that would put investigative journalists, whistleblowers and financially vulnerable media under considerable pressure.

ECPMF managing director Lutz Kinkel says: “The law is supposed to protect trade secrets, but it must not endanger investigative journalists and whistleblowers. Whoever wants an informed public, must permit critical reporting on enterprises. Whistleblowing is a basis for this.”

Flutura Kusari, legal advisor to ECPMF, says:

“Without sources and informants, journalists will not be able to hold governments and powerful people accountable. That is why they are crucial. Legislation on sources and informants should be drafted in close consultation with journalists and civil society organisations, taking into account EU and European Court of Human Rights standards on freedom of expression and the media.”

With its legal aid programme, the ECMF is supporting German research centre Correctiv, whose editor-in-chief, Oliver Schröm, is being prosecuted for allegedly betraying trade secrets. Schröm and his colleagues had researched the so-called “cum-cum” and “cum-ex” bank transactions, which cost European taxpayers billions.

“In its current form, the law is a blow to investigative journalists. This could hinder our work with legal attacks even more than it already does,” says Schröm.

Correctiv, the German Journalists’ Association (DJV) and ARD have all criticised the current version of draft law 19/4724.