Germany | Freedom House

Freedom in the World


Freedom in the World 2016
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Aggregate Score: 
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Political Rights: 
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Quick Facts

Press Freedom Status: 
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More than one million refugees entered Germany in 2015, the majority coming from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. This record-breaking influx, which heavily strained the resources of the German government, led to contested public discussions about immigration and asylum. Anti-immigration violence increased amid the crisis, with the Ministry of the Interior recording a sharp rise in attacks on refugee shelters during the year.

In July, the investigative journalism website reported that two of its journalists were under investigation for treason for the publication of articles that contained classified state information. The case, driven by the office of the federal prosecutor, marked the first use of treason charges against a journalist in Germany since 1962, and was widely criticized by media watchdogs and the German public as a restriction of press freedom. The case was dropped in August.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Political Rights: 39 / 40 [Key]

A. Electoral Process: 12 / 12                                                                                                   

The German constitution provides for a lower house of parliament, the Bundestag (Federal Assembly), as well as an upper house, the Bundesrat (Federal Council), which represents the country’s 16 federal states. The Bundestag is elected at least every four years through a mixture of proportional representation and single-member districts, which can lead the number of seats to vary from the minimum 598. The members of the Bundesrat are appointed by state governments. Germany’s head of state is a largely ceremonial president, chosen jointly by the Bundestag and a group of state representatives to serve up to two five-year terms. The chancellor—the head of government—is elected by the Bundestag and usually serves for the duration of a legislative session. The chancellor’s term can be cut short only if the Bundestag chooses a replacement in a so-called constructive vote of no confidence. In Germany’s federal system, state governments have considerable authority over matters such as education, policing, taxation, and spending.

Joachim Gauck was elected president in 2012. In the 2013 federal elections, a total of 631 representatives were elected to the Bundestag. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), won a total of 311 seats—the best showing for the Christian Democrats since 1990, when Germany reunified. The CDU’s previous coalition partner, the pro–free market Free Democratic Party (FDP), failed to meet the 5 percent threshold to qualify for seats for the first time since 1949. The center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) took 193 seats, and the Greens won 63. The far-left party the Left took 64 seats. The right-wing, Euroskeptic party Alternative for Germany (AfD) failed to qualify for seats.

The SPD had previously ruled out governing with the Left, which is widely viewed as a successor to the East German communists. In 2013, the CDU reached an agreement with the SPD to form a so-called grand coalition government, as they had done during Merkel’s first term (2005–09).

State-level elections took place in 2015 in the city-states of Bremen and Hamburg, with the AfD gaining legislative seats in both.


B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 15 / 16

Under electoral laws that, for historical reasons, are intended to restrict the far left and far right, a party must receive either 5 percent of the national vote or win at least three directly elected seats to gain representation in the parliament. The dominant political parties have traditionally been the SPD and the CDU-CSU.

The influence of Germany’s extreme-right party, the National Democratic Party (NPD)—an anti-immigration, anti-European Union (EU) party that has been accused of glorifying Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich—has been on the decline, but support for the AfD has grown in recent years. In addition to making gains in the 2015 state elections in Bremen and Hamburg, the party won seven seats in the European Parliament elections in 2014. In May 2015, founder Bernd Lucke and more moderate members left the party, citing its increasingly nationalist attitude and negative stance against refugees and immigrants.

All 16 German states petitioned the Federal Constitutional Court in 2013 to ban the NPD, calling it a neo-Nazi antidemocratic group. Previous attempts to outlaw the party have failed. The movement against the NPD continued in 2015, but no significant changes had occurred by year’s end.

After Bodo Ramelow became the first member of the Left to hold a premiership in 2014, when he was elected to the position in Thuringia, Chancellor Merkel and President Gauck publicly criticized the party’s inclusion in a state government.

The 2013 federal elections resulted in the first black members of the Bundestag, with one each from the CDU and the SPD. The CDU also saw its first Muslim deputy elected to the Bundestag. Overall, the number of Bundestag members from immigrant backgrounds rose from 21 to 34.


C. Functioning of Government: 12 / 12

Germany is free from pervasive corruption and was ranked 10 out of 168 countries and territories surveyed in Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index. The government is held accountable for its performance through open parliamentary debates, which are covered widely in the media. In a report released in April 2015, however, Transparency International criticized the German government for its lenient laws on lobbying activities, noting that there is poor regulation and disclosure of relationships between public officials and lobbyists.

In October, the Bundestag approved a controversial law on data retention. The legislation had elicited criticism upon introduction earlier in the year, due to both general privacy concerns and a particular section of the law about illegal data handling. Watchdogs voiced concerns that the law could be used to punish whistleblowers, who receive few legal protections in Germany. The Constitutional Court had ruled against indiscriminate data retention in 2010, as did the European Court of Human Rights in 2014. Supporters of the 2015 legislation framed it as a compromise, noting that it limits the types of information that can be stored as well as the duration of storage. The law entered into force in December.


Civil Liberties: 56 / 60 (−1)

D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 15 / 16

Freedom of expression is enshrined in the constitution, and the media are largely free and independent. Hate speech, such as racist agitation or anti-Semitism, is punishable by law. It is also illegal to advocate Nazism, deny the Holocaust, or glorify the ideology of Hitler.

In July 2015, received notice from the office of Germany’s prosecutor general that its chief editor, Markus Beckedahl, and a journalist, André Meister, were under investigation for treason. The charges against Beckedahl and Meister stemmed from two articles on surveillance by the government, published on the website in February and April, that contained internal documents from the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), Germany’s internal security agency. The investigation led to both a public outcry and tensions among government bodies over its legality. In August, the case was dropped, and the Ministry of Justice forced the prosecutor general into early retirement.

Internet access is generally unrestricted. In 2013, documents leaked by former U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA, collaborating with Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (BND), had secretly collected extensive data on communications in Germany, and had monitored Chancellor Merkel’s mobile phone. In 2014, a parliamentary inquiry was launched into the nature of cooperation between the NSA and BND. The inquiry was ongoing in 2015. In September, a witness testifying before the parliament’s investigative committee accused the BND of obstructing investigations by destroying emails.

Freedom of belief is legally protected. However, eight states have passed laws prohibiting female Muslim schoolteachers from wearing headscarves, while Berlin and the state of Hesse have adopted legislation banning headscarves for all civil servants. Several mosques were attacked or vandalized in 2015, including in Ludwigsburg and Bielefeld in September. Also in September, media in Münster reported that a gun had been fired through the window of a local synagogue.

Academic freedom is generally respected, and higher education is free of charge to students. Private discussion is unrestricted. Censorship of online discussion was the subject of debate in 2015, with many media representatives and senior politicians, including Chancellor Merkel, calling on Facebook, Google, and Twitter to delete comments containing hate speech. In December, following considerable government pressure, the companies agreed to control such content. In a controversial move, in November, prosecutors in Hamburg initiated an investigation into Facebook’s Germany-based European manager for failure to remove hate speech from the social media platform.


E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 12 / 12

The right of peaceful assembly is respected in practice, except in the case of outlawed groups, such as those advocating Nazism or opposing democratic order. Civic groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate without hindrance.

Trade unions, farmers’ groups, and business confederations are generally free to organize. In September 2015, a specialized labor court in Hesse halted a strike by Lufthansa pilots, finding that the pilots attempted to influence the general strategy of the company rather than distinct wage or benefit issues, which is not permitted under German law.


F. Rule of Law: 14 / 16 (−1)

The judiciary is independent, and the rule of law prevails. Prison conditions are adequate, though the Council of Europe has criticized some of Germany’s preventive detention practices.

Amid the affair in 2015, Justice Minister Heiko Maas faced criticism from several sides, both for allowing the investigation to proceed for several months and for intervening in prosecutorial affairs after the case was brought to light in July.

The threat posed by terrorist groups to national and regional security remained a major concern. By September, the BfV had identified at least 730 individuals who had traveled from Germany to Iraq and Syria to join the Islamic State (IS), despite a 2014 government ban on all forms of support for the militant group. Security forces arrested several individuals throughout the year on suspicion of terrorist activity. In December, a court in Lower Saxony sentenced two men to prison—one for four years and three months, and the other for three years—on charges of terrorism; they had returned to Germany after fighting with IS in Syria.

More than one million refugees entered Germany in 2015—a record-breaking number. By years’ end, approximately 477,000 asylum applications were filed with the government. Contending with inadequate funding and a shortage of temporary housing, federal states and municipalities struggled to ensure safe and humane accommodations. The residents of several cities formed community groups to assist the government in providing basic services to migrants.

According to the Interior Ministry, there were approximately 850 attacks on refugee shelters by mid-December 2015—four times the number recorded in the previous year. More than 90 of these attacks involved arson. Right-wing groups, including supporters of the NPD, held demonstrations against migrants on several occasions during the year, and made open calls to close Germany’s borders—a sentiment echoed by many senior politicians. The activities of the anti-immigration, anti-Islam group known as the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident (PEGIDA), which had developed into a large protest movement in 2014, notably declined in early 2015. However, the group began gaining support in the fall of 2015, following a surge in refugee arrivals over the summer months. Despite considerable domestic and international criticism, Chancellor Merkel maintained an open-door policy for refugees and an insistence on the inviolability of the right to asylum.


G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 15 / 16

Freedom of movement is legally protected and generally respected, although the refugee crisis and security concerns related to IS have led to some restrictions on travel. In April 2015, the government introduced legislation allowing the confiscation of identity documents from German citizens suspected of terrorism as a way to prevent them from traveling abroad, particularly to Iraq and Syria. The rights to own property and engage in commercial activity are respected.

Women’s rights are protected under antidiscrimination laws. However, a considerable gender wage gap persists, with women earning approximately 22 percent less in gross wages than men. A law requiring large German companies to reserve at least 30 percent of seats on their non-executive boards for women is set to come into effect in 2016. Following the 2013 federal elections, women gained 6 of the 16 federal cabinet positions and 36 percent of the seats in the Bundestag.

Limited same-sex partnership rights are respected. New adoption and tax legislation passed in 2014 gave equal rights to same-sex couples in these areas, in accordance with 2013 rulings by the Constitutional Court. However, the government does not grant same-sex couples the right to marry, instead providing the option of a civil partnership.

According to the U.S. State Department’s 2015 Trafficking in Persons report, migrants from Eastern Europe, Africa, and Asia are targeted for sex trafficking and forced labor. Asylum seekers are also particularly vulnerable to exploitation.


Scoring Key: X / Y (Z)

X = Score Received

Y = Best Possible Score

Z = Change from Previous Year

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