THOMAS DARNSTDT Since 9/11, press freedom in the West has come under attack as governments argue that national security is more important than transparency. But the hunt for WikiLeaks is a greater danger to democracy than any information that WikiLeaks might reveal. Why do we need freedom of the press? The framers of the US Constitution believed that such a guarantee would be unnecessary - if not dangerous. There are freedoms that we dont secure through promises, but which we take for ourselves. They are like the air we breathe in a democracy, whose authority is built on public opinion. The democracy that was founded on the basis of such insights is the American democracy. It is an indication of the American revolutionaries healthy mistrust in the power of this insight that they would later incorporate freedom of the press into the US Constitution after all. Today, more than 200 years later, this old idea seems naive to all too many people in the Western world. Since becoming embroiled in the war against terrorism, the US government has transformed itself into a huge security apparatus. The Washington Post recently reported that 854,000 people in the US government, or more than one-and-a-half times the population of Washington, DC, hold top-secret security clearances - and this under a president who came into office promising a new era of openness in government. An estimated 16 million government documents a year are stamped top secret, or not intended for the eyes of ordinary citizens. In the crisis, the countries of Old Europe are also putting up the barricades. Germanys constitution, known as the Basic Law, has a far-reaching guarantee of press freedom and was created after World War II on behalf of the US liberators and in the spirit of the American and French revolutions. But in the 10th year after the 9/11 attacks, one German conservative politician has even pondered whether it might not be a good idea to prohibit journalists from reporting on terrorism in too much detail. Such people would have been beheaded in revolutionary Paris and probably locked up in Philadelphia. When citizens were revolutionaries, the act of demanding freedom of speech was a revolutionary act. Today, in more peaceful times, we would characterize freedom of speech as a civic virtue. PLAYING WITH FIRE But then along comes someone who is still playing the part of the revolutionary. Julian Assange, the founder of the whistleblowing platform WikiLeaks, is playing with the fire of anarchy. He is constantly threatening new, increasingly dangerous disclosures, which should indeed be of great concern to those affected. But the hatred he reaps in return is beneath all democracies. In countries that have enshrined the right to free speech in their constitutions, it has until now been taken for granted that disclosures of confidential government information must be measured by the yardstick of the law. Disseminating real government secrets has always been against the law, including in Germany. The journalist Rudolf Augstein, SPIEGELs founding father, paid for the mere suspicion of having exposed state secrets by spending 103 days in custody in 1962, in relation to a SPIEGEL cover story on the defence capabilities of the German military. But because the courts abided by the law, and freedom of the press was ultimately considered to be worth more than politicians outrage, it wasnt the press but the government that felt the heat. But for those who have it in for Assange, its more a matter of principle than of enforcing the law. The loudmouth from Australia offers a welcome opportunity to finally cast off the old ideas of press freedom as a right that we grant ourselves instead of allowing others to grant it to us. Arent we all at war? Isnt it the case that citizens must, in fact, protect the state instead of spying on it? The trans-Atlantic coalition of protectors of the state includes such diverse participants as the chairman of the US Senate Committee on Homeland Security, Joe Lieberman, who accuses anyone who publishes secret US diplomatic cables of bad citizenship, and German Green Party Chairman Cem Ozdemir, who says that WikiLeaks has crossed a line that isnt good for our democracy. The need to portray oneself as a good citizen is particularly strong among certain journalists. Even the Suddeutsche Zeitung, which normally takes civil rights very seriously, chides that the WikiLeaks disclosures destroy politics, endanger people and can influence economies. American journalist Steve Coll, who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his own exposes, rages against the activities of WikiLeaks, calling them vandalism and subversion. The Washington Post, whose reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein once exposed the Watergate affair, describes WikiLeaks as a criminal organisation. DARK TIME FOR FREEDOM To critics, the most threatening aspect of WikiLeaks criminal activities must be the fact that, so far, no one has managed to find a law that these whistleblowers have actually broken. The US Justice Departments attempt to invoke the controversial Espionage Act of 1917 shows how helpless the protectors of the law are as they flip through their tomes. The period of World War I was a dark time for constitutional freedoms in the US. In its practically hysterical fear of communists and all other critics, the judiciary even prosecuted people who distributed flyers critical of military service, and in doing so ignored all constitutional guarantees. Even the post 9/11 period wasnt quite as bad. In 2005, when the New York Times planned to publish a story about an illegal global wire-tapping programme operated by the US National Security Agency (NSA), the papers senior editors were summoned to the White House to meet with then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The most powerful government in the world was forced to resort to moral pressure. Apparently no one knew of any legal justification for the government to bar the Times from going to press. Of course, the newspaper did ultimately publish what it had learned. Nevertheless, America survived. Or was it the other way around? Did America survive precisely because the New York Times published what it knew? THE IMPORTANCE OF ETHICS A few days ago, Congressional legal experts issued a report warning against dusting off the Espionage Act, arguing that it isnt quite that easy to apply the prohibition on disclosing secret government information to hostile powers to disclosures in the press. The only remaining option is to challenge the right of Assange and his much-feared organisation to claim protection under the Constitution as members of the press. Should every hurler of data be afforded the same political status as the New York Times or SPIEGEL? Isnt it true that what legitimises the work of the press is the responsible handling of data, as well as the acts of considering the consequences, applying emphasis and explaining the material? Thats the way it should be. The ethics of journalism is what makes the products of the press credible to readers. This is just as applicable to SPIEGEL as it is to its counterparts in New York and Washington. In fact, it should apply to anyone who deals with sensitive data. However, a look at the beginning of the story shows that no one but citizens themselves - that is, the readers - can answer the question of whether the standards were adhered to. The worst penalty they can impose is to simply not read a newspaper or a collection of data on the Internet. Spiegel ARE CITIZENS PERMITTED TO DISCLOSE STATE SECRETS? WikiLeaks is as much an intermediary for the public sphere as every newspaper and every website. For Berlin constitutional law expert Dieter Grimm, it is clear that the whistleblower website enjoys the protections for freedom of the press under Germanys Basic Law. As a judge on the German Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe, Grimm played a very important role in shaping the current interpretation of freedom of opinion and freedom of the press in Germany. The Constitutional Court itself has consistently emphasized that the task of disseminating information in an unimpeded manner is clearly essential to the functioning of a democracy.There is no good or bad public sphere, just as there is no such thing as a bit of a public sphere. According to the German Constitutional Court, it is only the full-fledged ability of all citizens to have access to all information, at least in principle, which makes the formation of public opinion possible. And it is the unobstructed formation of public opinion that makes it possible to view the outcome of elections as being representative of the will of the people. Is the state permitted to keep secrets from its citizens? Are citizens permitted to disclose such secrets? The answer to both questions is very simple: Yes.Spiegel