German police carry out countrywide raids over online hate speech

German police carried out raids across the country Thursday as part of investigations against 40 people accused of online hate speech against a pro-refugee politician who was murdered by a suspected neo-Nazi in 2019.

German police carry out countrywide raids over online hate speech
Police tape outside of the home where Walter Lübcke was murdered in June 2019. Photo: DPA

Officers searched premises linked to the suspects across 12 German states “in a coordinated, nationwide action”, the Frankfurt prosecution service's internet crime office ZIT said in a statement.

The 40 suspects stand accused of “making criminally relevant statements, primarily on social media” against Walter Lübcke, a local politician in the western state of Hesse who was shot dead on his terrace in June 2019.

READ ALSO: Political link suspected in German pro-migrant politician's murder

Prosecutors have charged known neo-Nazi Stephan Ernst with the murder, apparently spurred by anger over Lübcke's willingness to host refugees in the area. The accused is set to go on trial on June 16th.

The murder shocked Germany and fuelled alarm over the country's increasingly violent far-right scene.

The German government has sought to counter the growing threat in part by cracking down on online hate speech.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's government approved a draft law in February setting out tougher punishments for those caught spreading hatred or making threats on the internet.

Social media networks like Twitter and Facebook will also be required to pass on certain types of illegal posts to the police, such as neo-Nazi propaganda or rape or death threats.

Critics have said the law could stifle free speech online but Interior Minister Horst Seehofer has said it would help ensure hate crimes “end up where they belong: before a court”.

READ ALSO: Germany to crack down on online hate speech

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Germany to tighten hate speech and gun laws to fight far right

The German government on Wednesday approved a draft law to crack down on the far right, three weeks after a deadly attack by an alleged neo-Nazi targeting a synagogue.

Germany to tighten hate speech and gun laws to fight far right
German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer speaking at a press conference on Wednesday in Berlin. Photo: DPA

Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet signed off on a raft of measures that in
particular target weapons sales and hate speech online.

The bill must still be approved by parliament.

“The threat from far-right extremism and far-right terrorism, and with them anti-Semitism, is high in Germany and we can't stress it often enough,” Interior Minister Horst Seehofer told a news conference.

Germany had already in 2017 passed one of the most restrictive laws in the world to combat racist and incendiary speech online, requiring social media giants to remove illegal content or risk fines of up to €50 million.

READ ALSO: Is a new German law encouraging social media giants to censor opinions?

It came after the arrival of more than one million asylum-seekers since 2015 fuelled far-right propaganda, and gives companies such as Twitter and Facebook 24 hours to remove posts that openly violate German law after they are flagged by users.

Detractors have criticised the law as curbing free speech and putting internet companies in the role of censors.

The new legislation goes further, compelling internet companies to flag problematic content including death threats and incitement of racial hatred to police.

Law enforcement authorities will have the power to order online platforms
to provide them with user data in these cases for possible criminal prosecution.

Internet is not a 'lawless zone'

“It has to be clear that the internet is not a lawless zone and that while free speech reigns in the digital as well as the analogue world, it reaches its limits when it breaks the criminal code,” Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht told reporters.

The measures will also make it more difficult for firearms to land in the hands of criminals.

The domestic intelligence watchdog will review arms purchases to make sure the buyer is not a known sympathiser with radical movements.

The measures come three weeks after a right-wing extremist who had posted a racist, misogynistic and anti-Semitic manifesto online tried and failed to storm a synagogue in the eastern city of Halle on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar.

READ ALSO: What we know about the synagogue shooting in Halle

When he was unable to blast open the locked door of the temple, he shot and
killed two non-Jewish Germans — one on the street outside and another at a Turkish snack shop.

Seehofer noted the fact that his weapons — reportedly built using a 3D printer — repeatedly failed to fire had prevented a potential “massacre”.

“I don't even want to imagine what might have happened in Halle if we had
American-style gun laws” Seehofer said, referring to the far less restrictive
weapons legislation in the United States.