A dispute over press access to a neo-Nazi trial reveals the tension between Germany's embrace of privacy and its need to confront right-wing extremism

The 6th Criminal Division of the Higher Regional Court in Munich, Germany, houses one of the largest courtrooms in Bavaria, which is currently hosting the most significant Nazi trial here since the end of World War II.

Beate Zschäpe is the lead defendant in the case, which deals with a series of murders that began in 2000 and spanned nearly a decade. Of the 10 victims that Zschäpe and her two alleged co-conspirators, Uwe Böhnhardt and Uwe Mundlos, are charged with murdering, eight were of Turkish descent. Böhnhardt and Mundlos are dead; Zschäpe is standing trial as the sole principal perpetrator, along with four accomplices. The charges against her include being a founding member of a terrorist group, the National Socialist Underground (NSU).

Inside the staid courthouse, in a high-ceilinged room cramped with orange chairs, there is a crescent-shaped balcony with 100 more chairs arranged in neat rows. Half of those 100 seats—for a trial expected to probe the existential questions that have haunted Germany’s postwar identity—were reserved for the media. In March 2013, the presiding judge, Manfred Götzl, decided to distribute the coveted slots on a first-come, first-served basis instead of a lottery system, which is the other common method. There were more than two press outlets vying for every seat. When the accreditation list was released, 23 days before the trial was due to begin on April 17, it contained not a single Turkish media outlet, and only one foreign outlet, Thomson Reuters.

Time and again during the Zschäpe proceedings, the question of how to reconcile the weight of history with the moral imperatives of the present has perplexed German society. In the accreditation process and again in the debate over whether to allow a live videostream of the trial, established legal standard has run headlong into what is considered the political gravity of the case. This has mostly meant weighing the German—and by American standards conservative—approach to protecting the privacy of individuals against the recognition that how the country deals with a right-wing extremist group is colored by the special circumstances of German history. As such, it is a matter of concern beyond Germany’s borders. But this balancing act might have gone unexamined without the uproar over the exclusion of foreign media from the courtroom.

In the immediate aftermath of the accreditation process, public—and journalistic—outcry was unbridled. Some court observers and reporters said Götzl had ignored the political ramifications of not ensuring that Turkish media got access to the trial. “The conversation was no longer about the trial, but about how the trial was going to be able to be covered by the media,” says Melissa Eddy, Berlin correspondent for the International New York Times.

The Judiciary Press Conference of Karlsruhe, an association of German reporters who cover the court system, wrote an open letter to Götzl requesting that a livestream of the trial be offered in a nearby room. The German Committee of the International Press Institute, based in Vienna, reiterated the plea. Some news organizations that got a seat offered to give it up to a Turkish outlet, but the court deemed the idea unfair to other outlets that might be higher on the waiting list. The German Journalists’ Association, with more than 37,000 members, publicly chided the handling of the accreditation process.

The livestream was rejected by the court on the basis that it would constitute a broadcast of the proceedings, which is against German law. In a section of the constitutional code that has been in place since the mid-1960s—and been subject to multiple challenges by German media—no court proceeding can be televised.

Ultimately, Ismail Erel, the editor of Sabah, a Turkish-language newspaper, filed a complaint with the German Constitutional Court claiming that he received the email announcing start of the accreditation process 19 minutes later than German news organizations.

On April 12, the Constitutional Court ordered the court in Munich to allocate seats for foreign, and especially Turkish, outlets. The tardiness of the decision pushed the start of the trial into May and prompted the judge to scrap the initial list of accredited press and start the process again, this time using a lottery with quotas for foreign and domestic press.

In the meantime, the national discussion concerning the conduct of the court and the larger significance of the trial was raging. The Turkish ambassador urged the court to show more sensitivity, as did Chancellor Angela Merkel’s deputy, Philipp Rösler. International interest in the trial grew. Eddy filed a piece for The New York Times about the dispute and Celal Özcan, the Europe editor of Hürriyet, an international Turkish-language newspaper, says the imbroglio aroused unprecedented curiosity among his paper’s readers. “People became concerned about what happened,” he says. “Why didn’t they want Turkish media?”

In fact, Götzl’s decision to not allow the livestream stems from a larger web of German law, and an established legal tradition protecting the privacy of trial participants. A misstep could expose the entire case to retrial on the grounds of procedural error. If, for example, the livestream were deemed a public broadcast, then the legitimacy of the trial could be challenged in federal court.

There are two primary justifications for the broadcasting law: that witnesses should not hear each other’s testimony before appearing on the stand, and that privacy should be protected. This second rationale reflects a fundamental sensibility that courses through German society—one that is supported by privacy laws enshrined in civil code and that effectively places limits on press coverage through established standards of decorum. “We are convinced that a court trial is not a show that should be broadcast,” explains Marcel Machill, the chairman of the journalism department at University of Leipzig and an expert on international media. “Because they might not be guilty at the end of the day. It’s completely different than in the US. If they appear on a TV screen, their lives are destroyed. Here, journalists are in the courtroom, and that’s fine; they’re fulfilling their task of informing the public. It’s not a question of hiding something, there’s just a major difference between being reported in the printed press or being broadcast.”

But in the Zschäpe case, the accreditation process created a rupture in the bounds of journalistic propriety. Even observers who sympathize with Götzl’s legal limitations say the fallout from his decision ignited a broader debate over how to ensure the case would be adequately covered. Gisela Friedrichsen, Germany’s most prominent court reporter who writes for the weekly magazine Der Spiegel, says much of the outcry was based on a false perception that instructions about how to apply for accreditation in the initial round were inequitably distributed. The outrage that resulted, she says, threatened broader German privacy protections that place limits on what information can be reported.

Those protections, which generally prohibit the publication or broadcast of the full name or photograph of someone charged with a crime, have helped conceal the identity of at least one of the four accomplices being tried alongside Zschäpe. With the exception of Ralf Wohlleben, who, as a former member of the NPD, the German neo-Nazi party, is considered a public figure, the others are often referred to only by their first name and last initial.

For some German journalists, the need to respect privacy laws has distorted the story. Many newspapers have published features on some of the accomplices, but the emphasis is unwaveringly on Zschäpe, whose identity was reported when she turned herself into police in 2011; prosecutors uncharacteristically identified her at a press conference outlining the indictment. As a result, much of the trial coverage has framed it as the story of an isolated trio of alleged killers, rather than of a right-wing extremist network spreading through the country. “The difference between calling it the ‘Zschäpe trial’ and ‘a trial about the NSU supporters and members’ is that the first makes it seem more harmless than it is,” says Jochen Neumeyer, a courts reporter for the German newswire Deutsche Presse-Agentur. “It makes it seem like some small, private thing and neglects the political dimensions of the case. These people didn’t emerge out of the blue, they came out of a vivid neo-Nazi scene in East Germany.”

Yet Neumeyer also recognizes the benefits of protecting the privacy of people who haven’t been found guilty of a crime. The line is editorially murky, wavering between what’s legally possible and what makes for a good story. Features published about the accomplices that respect privacy restraints simply don’t have the personal dimension of stories about Zschäpe. “It’s what the Germans believe; it’s what they accept,” says Melissa Eddy. “It’s the way society functions here. And in their history, and in their view, it’s almost anti-authority, because Germans have a long history of people being falsely accused by the authorities.”

With Zschäpe herself, however, there is consensus that the seriousness of the charges—and the implications of the case, in terms of how the murders were misunderstood by the German police for nearly a decade—demands a broadly public airing of the trial. The second round of press accreditation allocated seats to foreign media and established press categories based on target audiences. The move quelled many of the sharpest criticisms of the court, and placed the case more squarely in front of an international gaze.

“It’s not something private anymore, and I think public society should know what kind of human being Zschäpe is,” says Hürriyet’s Özcan, echoing a journalistic tradition refined by Hannah Arendt in her coverage of the Adolf Eichmann trial. “How can a human being develop in such a way? How does a human being become a murderer? If you hear everything, it’s shocking when you realize that Zschäpe was living a perfectly normal life. As if nothing had happened.”

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jessica Camille Aguirre is a freelance journalist currently on a Fulbright fellowship in Berlin.