BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany opened a treason investigation on Thursday into a news website that a broadcaster said had reported on plans to increase state surveillance of online communications.
German media said it was the first time in more than 50 years that journalists had faced treason charges, and some denounced the move as an attack on the freedom of the press.
"The Federal Prosecutor has started an investigation on suspicion of treason into the articles ... published on the internet blog Netzpolitik.org," a spokeswoman for the prosecutor's office said.
She added that the move followed a criminal complaint by Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), over articles about the BfV that appeared on the website on Feb. 25 and April 15. It said the articles had been based on leaked documents.
The public broadcaster ARD reported that Netzpolitik.org had published an article this year on how the BfV was seeking extra funding to increase its online surveillance, and another about plans to set up a special unit to monitor social media, both based on leaked confidential documents.
The website specializes in Internet politics, data protection, freedom of information and digital rights issues.
"This is an attack on the freedom of the press," Netzpolitik.org journalist Andre Meister, targeted by the investigation along with editor-in-chief Markus Beckedahl, said in a statement. "We're not going to be intimidated by this."
Michael Konken, head of the German press association (DJV), echoed the sentiment, and called the probe "an unacceptable attempt to muzzle two critical journalists".
In 1962, Defense Minister Franz Josef Strauss was forced to resign after treason charges were brought against the news weekly Der Spiegel for a cover story alleging that West Germany's armed forces were unprepared to defend it against the communist threat in the Cold War.
Beckedahl told the TV network N24: "I'm torn between feeling like this is an accolade and the thought that it could end up leading to jail."
Reporting by Erik Kirschbaum; Editing by Kevin Liffey