Germany’s Justice Minister Heiko Maas just fired the country’s top prosecutor Harald Range. This came in the wake of a public battle over how Range was handling a treason investigation launched against journalists who released government documents about a surveillance program.

The German justice ministry has been investigating two journalists from Netzpolitik.org on a possible treason charge, for publishing leaked information about the country’s surveillance program. Earlier this year, the journalists uncovered documents revealing a German plan to expand state surveillance of the internet. When details of the treason investigation were revealed last week, protests blocked Berlin streets. As the BBC notes, Germany is already very sensitive about government overreach when it comes to freedom of the press, and the public was outraged.

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Justice Minister Maas derailed the investigation by saying that he didn’t think there was a case, suggesting that the prosecutor, Range, had gone too far. German Chancellor Angela Merkel didn’t take a side per se, but indicated that she had confidence in Maas.

As widely reported, Range flipped out over Merkel’s comments, calling it an “intolerable” encroachment on the the independence of the judiciary. That was the last straw for Maas, who subsequently fired the prosecutor. It seems unlikely the treason investigation will go forward.

It’s a remarkable case in that public outcry seems to have played a major role in the treason case getting scaled back. Reporting on state surveillance almost necessarily dances very close to what hardline government officials and organizations might consider treason. Look no further than Edward Snowden’s continued exile and Chelsea Manning’s imprisonment for evidence.

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The Netzpolitik case suggests that public perceptions may be changing faster than government ones. And this could bode well for whistleblowers beyond the German borders, too.

[AFP and BBC]