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?”