Freedom of the press in the “Strobl Affair”: how ministers and the media secretly work together

In Baden-Württemberg, the country is dealing with an affair that could cost Interior Minister Thomas Strobl (CDU) the office. It’s about the country’s highest-ranking police officer, Andreas Renner, who is said to have sexually assaulted a subordinate officer. In addition, it is also about the confidential passing on of an official document by Strobl and thus about an interaction between the media and politics, which rarely comes to light. And that went far: On Wednesday, the Stuttgart public prosecutor’s office even announced that the investigative reporter of the “Stuttgarter Zeitung” Franz Feyder had submitted an investigative article about the affair, which also affected Strobl’s ministry, to the ministry before publication.

Apparently, Strobl wanted to create a mood against his chief police officer

It was just a side note. But it illustrates Strobl’s behavior in the affair. Apparently, the minister, as an unnamed and unrecognized informer, had wanted to use the press to stir up feelings against his senior policeman Renner, who had been suspended from duty, with official documents from his own house. Do you do that as Minister of the Interior? Do you participate as a journalist? This is one of the open questions that a committee of inquiry in the state parliament is currently investigating. An investigation against Strobl for “prohibited disclosures about court hearings” (paragraph 353d of the Criminal Code) was discontinued for a payment of 15,000 euros, as the public prosecutor’s office also said on Wednesday. Feyder got away without paying.

It is not in line with the Interior Ministry’s practice to have press articles presented to it for approval.

A spokesman for the Baden-Württemberg Ministry

State police inspector Renner had given the impetus for the affair. During the investigation into the sex allegations, Strobl, who was also Renner’s employer, slipped the reporter Feyder a letter from Renner’s lawyer. Feyder made a headline out of it to the detriment of Renner – without naming the minister as a source. The ministry initially acted as if it had nothing to do with the article. When Strobl’s involvement became known, the public prosecutor’s office initiated investigations against him and Feyder. Paragraph 353d, she argues, protects official documents from ongoing criminal proceedings from being disclosed to the public – and thus also the letter from Renner’s lawyer.

The minister pleaded not guilty because the letter was not a document within the meaning of the paragraph. He justified the “transparency”, as he called his actions, by saying that the letter contained an offer of talks that was “cheating”. He couldn’t get away with it at the prosecutor’s office. So Strobl paid, otherwise the case would probably have ended up in court.

In truth, the minister determined what was reported

The whole thing looked like journalistic research, but in reality the minister determined what was reported. The “revelation” incriminating the police inspector was entirely due to Strobl, who acted as a secret informant. The journalist Feyder, on the other hand, apparently offered himself as a media partner to publicize Strobl’s “spin” from the scandalous writing, without naming Strobl.

When asked by the Tagesspiegel, the ministry emphasized that the reporter had sent his article “for information” and not to approve it. In addition, Strobl “can’t remember” whether he agreed to some kind of “source protection” with Feyder in order to remain anonymous. On the other hand, reporter Feyder stated on request that he had assured Strobl of his own request that the source would be protected. The opposition in the state parliament now wants to investigate the contradiction to Strobl’s statement.

The “Stuttgarter Nachrichten” does not seem to see any risks for journalism or freedom of the press from hidden collaborations between the state and the press. For him, Strobl was “a source to be protected”, explained Feyder and compared the case with that of whistleblower Edward Snowden from the US secret service NSA. He also did not submit the article to the ministry, but to Strobl – “the informant to be protected”.

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