A picture taken on May 19, 2020 shows an employee walking past the name of German Federal Intelligence Service (BND) at its…
A picture taken on May 19, 2020 shows an employee walking past the name of German Federal Intelligence Service (BND) at its headquarters in Berlin.

Germany's Constitutional Court ruled on Tuesday that the country’s foreign intelligence agency is subject to the constitution when conducting activities overseas.  

 The ruling came in response to complaints filed by journalists and the press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF).  

The ruling said the BND intelligence agency’s surveillance of telephones and internet traffic of foreigners overseas violates the constitution’s protections of press freedom and the right to privacy in telecommunications.  

Managing director of the German chapter of Reporters Without Borders Christian Mihr takes part in a talk with Hatice Cengiz, fiancee of slain Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the NGO's headquarters in Berlin on Dec. 20, 2019.

“The Federal Constitutional Court has once again underlined the importance of press freedom,” said Christian Mihr, RSF Germany’s executive director. “We are delighted that Karlsruhe is putting a stop to the escalating surveillance practices of the Federal Intelligence Service abroad.” 

Four German media outlets and six investigative journalists, including Azeri reporter Khadija Ismayilova and Slovenian freelancer Blaz Zgaga, filed the constitutional complaint in 2017 alongside RSF and the civil rights organization Society of Civil Liberties (GFF).  

The journalists said they were concerned about the legality of the BND’s collection and analysis of telecommunications data from abroad.   

RSF said Tuesday that the rights groups and journalists feared the law could undermine source protection and weaken trust in the media.  

The ruling requires the German government to change an amendment to the law governing the BND’s authority that was enacted in 2017.  

The amendment was ratified after revelations the U.S. had surveilled internet traffic in Germany and the BND had taken similar actions abroad.    

The court said BND’s current surveillance powers violate the constitution. But it also said the agency’s surveillance of foreigners in other countries is compatible with the constitution in principal, and therefore, existing rules can remain in effect until the end of next year.    

"The big victory is that German authorities cannot get out of their constitutional obligations by going abroad and working there," said Nora Markard, vice president of the Gesellschaft für Freiheitsrechte e.V. (GFF) or the Society for Freedom Rights. 

Mihr told VOA that RSF was happy with the decision, but he noted that intelligence agencies in other countries follow the same practices. 

“Today’s (decision) is a landmark ruling, which will hopefully inspire others,” he said. 

Some information is from AFP and Reuters.