Germany: A Concerning Case of Censorship and Digital SurveillancePublished on Mon Apr 04 2022 - modified on Thu Nov 17 2022
Dr. Anna-Esther Younes is a German Palestinian academic who has been subjected to several disinformation campaigns, publicly defamed and had her freedom of expression restricted in respect of her journalism, academic and policy work. The latest in this long chain of disinformation campaigns and repression occurred in 2019, when she discovered that her academic work and other data had been privately processed and distorted to frame her as anti-Jewish racist, sexist and as a terrorist sympathizer.
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Facts of the Case
In November 2019, Dr. Younes, a scholar of critical race theory, was invited on a panel to discuss strategies against right-wing extremism in Germany. She was uninvited the evening before the event. Weeks later, it emerged that RIAS Berlin (an organisation that “reports and monitors antisemitic incidents in Berlin”), along with MBR (an organisation “identifying and dealing with extreme right-wing, right-wing populism, racist and anti-Semitic behavior”) had surveilled her and privately processed her data to frame her as anti-Jewish racist, sexist and as a terrorist sympathiser. RIAS collected and distorted Dr. Younes’ personal information, her academic publications on Israel-Palestine, and information pertaining to her alleged support to the BDS (Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions) movement which were available online. Using this personal data RIAS created a secret dossier, which was sent to the organisers of the event and resulted in her being uninvited. RIAS Berlin and MBR are two projects of the umbrella organisation VDK e.V. (Society for a Democratic Culture in Berlin) and are funded by German public bodies.
In March 2020, Dr. Younes requested access to her personal data from RIAS under European data protection law. This request was refused. Three months later, with the assistance of the European Legal Support Center (ELSC), she initiated complaint proceedings to the Berlin Data Protection Authority (DPA) against RIAS and MBR. The complaint requested that the DPA acknowledge the unlawfulness of RIAS’ data processing and order it to provide Dr. Younes with the personal data it had collected. Over one and a half years later, the decision of the Berlin DPA is still pending. Dr. Younes, with her lawyer and the ELSC, decided to file a complaint against the DPA for its “inactivity” as well as a civil lawsuit against VDK e.V. to expedite the process. The first is already before the 1st Chamber of the Administrative Court of Berlin for decision, which deals, among other things, with data protection law, statistical surveys and disputes under the Stasi Records Act.
Other individuals have sent privacy-related requests to RIAS Berlin in fear that they are being observed and that secret papers are being created by RIAS about them due to their critical stances on Israeli domestic and foreign policy. Following the same pattern, RIAS denied having processed any of their data and claimed exemptions not to give access in any case. Unconvinced by this response, some of these parties concerned now intend to join Dr. Younes’ action.
Last update, May 17, 2022: The Berlin Data Protection Authority and VDK – the German state-funded organisation that legally represents RIAS Berlin and MBR – aknowledged Dr. Younes’ right to access her data and VDK released the dossier. On 6 May 2022, the Berlin District Court upheld Dr. Younes’ claims and ordered VDK to give Anna Younes access to data that the two civil society organisations had gathered on her and passed on to others. The information released so far reveals that RIAS and MBR have been collecting people’s personal data based on their “positions on Israel and BDS.” Read more in our press release.
Controversial Issues at Stake
This case illustrates the increasing violation of democratic principles with respect to Palestinian rights advocates across Europe. It infringes on the right to privacy, freedom of expression and the participation in public life of anti-racist and decolonial advocates in Europe.
We hope to draw attention to the defamation of Palestinian and decolonial voices, and their supporters, as well as to promote transparency and accountability within the framework of protection of democratic principles. The most relevant issues related to the case are addressed below.
Repression of Palestinian rights advocates
The censorship Dr. Younes is experiencing is not an isolated incident. It is symptomatic of a broader trend of repression, attacks, and disinformation campaigns against Palestinian rights advocates, and academics, particularly from minority ethnic backgrounds, in Germany, the UK, and across the ‘Western’ world. So far, the ELSC has monitored hundreds of cases of unfounded allegations of anti-Semitism against students, academics, activists in Germany, in The Netherlands, the UK, Austria, Italy, France, Belgium.
This trend has grown following the adoption of anti-BDS motions in Germany by federal and regional parliaments, designating BDS as “antisemitic” and calling on public institutions to refuse funding and spaces for groups supporting BDS. By employing the notion of “antisemitism”, these motions stigmatise the BDS movement and Palestinian rights advocates, curtailing their fundamental rights to freedom of expression and assembly. This is having a chilling effect on Palestinian rights advocates, by intimidating and silencing them and the important cause for which they are advocating. This has the longstanding effect of erasing Palestinian human rights from the domain of legitimate public debate.
Limitation of academic freedom
Academics are protected under the right to academic freedom, intended as the right to express their views and opinions, even if controversial or unpopular. The manner in which RIAS referred to Dr. Younes’ peer-reviewed article decontextualised her analysis, falsely misrepresented her argument, and framed her as a supporter of sexism and terrorism, infringing upon her academic freedom. The academic work in question falls within feminist post-colonial scholarship. It was not sexist and did not endorse terrorism, as testified in official documents reviewing Dr. Younes’ work in light of these accusations.
RIAS’ effort to defame Dr. Younes included preventing Dr. Younes from publicly discussing her work on racism in Germany. We see this as a serious threat to her rights to academic freedom and freedom of expression. The ELSC has gathered extensive data showing how similar allegations have been employed to censor public debate in the UK and to repress academics who expose Israel’s illegal policies and practices. Such tactics have tremendous consequences for the expression of critical thinking in democratic societies, education systems, and the maintenance of public debate in any democracy, which relies on plurality of opinions.
Unlawful interference with privacy rights
RIAS’ collection and processing of Dr. Younes’ personal data amounts to surveillance. As the Advocate General of the European Court of Justice acknowledged, surveillance practices include the collection, processing and retention of personal data without the subject’s knowledge or consent. In the present case, RIAS’ preparation of a secret dossier containing Dr. Younes’ processed personal data, along with its subsequent distribution of the dossier to a third party, matches the foregoing features of surveillance. This creates a chilling effect on individuals’ freedom of expression, as it has the apparent intention to instil the fear that one’s personal data may be constantly tracked. Moreover, the data processing carried out by RIAS is unlawful, because it violated several data processing principles laid down in Article 5 GDPR: principles of accuracy, purpose limitation, and transparency.
The case of Dr. Younes shows that publicly funded bodies are able to secretly collect data on individuals and use it to limit their fundamental rights without transparency or any accountability mechanism. This has no place in a fair, democratic society.
On this issue, read more here: Can Data Protection Laws Prevent the Surveillance of Critical Voices in Germany?
Problematic categorization of data
RIAS “reports and monitors antisemitic incidents in Berlin”. By adopting a broad definition of anti-Jewish racism based on the working definition of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA-WDA) and its controversial examples, this organisation includes Israel-critical scholarship or activism in its understanding of “Israel-related antisemitism”. This position equates anti-Zionism with anti-Jewish racism, which results in categorising legitimate criticism of Israel’s policies, racisms and colonialism as inherently “antisemitic”. This includes slogans such as “Free Palestine” and “End support for Israel’s occupation and apartheid regime” or demonstrations against human rights violations conducted by the Israeli State.
RIAS is a pivotal stakeholder when it comes to promoting the IHRA-WDA at the European level through the RIAS Federal Association. The European Commission and the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) “commissioned RIAS to develop a handbook on how the IHRA definition can be used in order to support Member States in their efforts to combat antisemitism”. The civil society organisations network 11.11.11 has described the Handbook as “another indication of how Europe has turned into a battlefield of persistent efforts to delegitimize advocacy and activism for Palestinian rights and respect for international law.” The ELSC has conducted a legal analysis of the Handbook and concluded that “the content of the Handbook amounts to misinformation” and that “the authors of the Handbook violated the European Code of Conduct of Research Integrity”.
 This law gives the right to access the data contained in the files that the secret police from East Germany (Stasi) used to collect on its residents.
What can you do to support the case?
- Sign the letter in support of Dr. Younes and and other scholars, activists and journalists against censorship and unlawful surveillance in Germany.
- SHARE the campaign on social media with the hashtag #EndSurveillance
November 2019: Dr. Younes was disinvited from a public event about strategies against right-wing extremism in Germany. Shortly after that, she learnt that RIAS Berlin and MBR sent a secret file to the organisers.
March 2020: Dr. Younes requested to access her personal data, as enshrined in European Data Protection Law.
April 2020: RIAS denied her request.
June 2020: Dr. Younes filed a complaint against RIAS Berlin and MBR before the Berlin Data Protection Authority.
2021-22: Other individuals who feared to be observed also sent RIAS Berlin data access requests. RIAS did not provide any clear answer and refused to give access, evading its obligations the same way it did with Dr. Younes’s request.
April 2022: Dr. Younes filed an administrative complaint against the Berlin Data Protection Authority and a civil lawsuit against VDK/RIAS.
May 2022: The DPA took action and VDK/RIAS gave access to the dossier. Berlin District Court aknowledged Dr. Younes’ data rights and ordered VDK/RIAS to give access to all personal data they collected about Dr. Younes. Anna Younes and her lawyer intend to request damages.
A few days later, the DPA issued its final decision and issued a warning against VDK, representing RIAS Berlin and MBR. The DPA rejected RIAS/MBR’s claim and stated that they “did not have a serious scientific purpose” nor a journalistic one when preparing this dossier and found RIAS/MBR violated European data protection law (GDPR).
2 November 2022: Dr. Younes files two new lawsuits: one to the Berlin Administrative Court to review the controversial DPA’s decision and acknowledge that RIAS/MBR’s surveillance and false labelling of Dr. Younes as an anti-Jewish racist violated her right to privacy and right to reputation. Another one to the Mitte District Court to request compensation.
Dr. Anna Younes Surveillance’s Case: the Fight Continues with Two New Lawsuits, 3 November 2022
Berlin Data Protection Authority Holds RIAS/MBR Accountable for Violating Dr. Younes’ Data Rights, 22 June 2022
German court rules in favour of scholar Dr. Anna Younes in digital surveillance case, 17 May 2022
Related ELSC Resources
Can Data Protection Laws Prevent the Surveillance of Critical Voices in Germany?, 7 April 2022
Letter in Support of Dr. Anna Younes, 7 April 2022
Hebh Jamal, Germany puts artists, academics in its anti-Palestinian crosshairs, +972 Magazine, 3 July 2022
Abir Kopty, How German guilt is being used to silence Palestinians, Middle East Eye, Middle East Eye, 28 June 2022
Nidal Thawri, Palästina Solidarität in Deutschland: Zensur und Repressionen haben Tradition, Marx21, 29 June 2022
Dania Akkad, German authority says dossier compiled on German-Palestinian smear target was lawful, Middle East Eye, 22 June 2022
David Kattenburg, The dangers of advocating for Palestine in Germany, Mondoweiss, 2 June 2022
Dania Akkad, German-Palestinian academic at centre of smear campaign wins crucial legal victory, Middle East Eye, 17 May 2022
Dania Akkad, Is Germany paying for the surveillance of Palestinians and their supporters?, Middle East Eye, 26 April 2022
The Left Berlin, Interview with Dr. Anna-Esther Younes, 7 April 2022
Hebh Jamal, In Germany, universities are leading the charge against Palestine solidarity, +972, 9 November 2021
99 ZU EINS, The War on Anti-Semitism with Anna-Esther Younes – Ep. 52
Anna-Esther Younes, Noor Blaas, Palestine, Feminism, and The Pitfalls of Liberalism in Germany and Beyond, 9 January 2022
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