Journal: Pioneering verdict on the local authorities’ website

In many municipalities, the Government Gazette and the municipality’s website are the only publications where citizens can still get information about the location. Because in more and more smaller cities there is no longer a local newspaper. Editors have been merged, but if a journalist looks past at a local council meeting, it is often worth only a marginal line in the regional daily newspaper. As the circulation of dailies dwindles, the pressure to save grows. Journalists are responsible for more and more communities and have less and less room for political reporting.

This is exactly where the municipality jumps in with the state newspaper and increasingly also with the municipality’s website. Be it information about events from local clubs, be it information about the upcoming heat or news about a new shop in the village. But that is exactly what continues to create discrepancies between administrations and local publishers. For a municipality must not compete with the regional newspaper. And then the publishers are happy to blame the municipality for declining circulation, if they also report on the content of what is happening in the city. Several judgments had already been handed down over the respective municipality, the most well-known being the so-called Crailsheim judgment. As a result, it was always said: A city portal on the Internet is like an official magazine and must not report journalistically at all. The Federal Court has now decided otherwise. And thus massively strengthened the rights of municipalities in Germany.

The Official Journal may contain journalistic content

The ruling from the Federal Court referred to the portal to a large city, but can be compared to any other municipality. It was about the offer from the city of Dortmund. The verdict says: Although the city administration mixes in individual journalistic content, it is still not in violation of competition law and the constitutional freedom of the press.

The publisher of Ruhr News, a Dortmund newspaper, had sued. He had lodged a complaint against the internet portal because it was in no way limited to official reports. The site currently contains a contribution to the expected heat wave in the Ruhr area. There are tips on how to better cope with the heat. However, the judges say: Even the large amount of municipal information does not prevent readers from getting information from the local press. Updated information is therefore generally permitted. A city portal and thus also a government newspaper does not have to be limited to pure official communication.

The exact judgment of 14 July bears the case number: I ZR 97/21. The distance of the press from the state is not violated if the overall nature of the website is not suitable to jeopardize the institutional guarantee of the free press from Article 5 (1) of the Constitution. 1, 2nd sentence. Above all, this phrase has great significance for municipalities and their internet offerings. It now gives greater freedom to report on what is happening on the spot. The exact reasons for the verdict have been well explained in a press release from the Federal Court since Friday. You can find the link to the press release HERE. It is entitled: “On the competition law limits for the operation of a municipal internet portal”.

The municipalities must be aware of this in the Government Gazette and on the Internet portal:

The judgment clearly shows that the decisive factor is whether the overall nature of the press product is suitable for bringing the department’s guarantee from section 5 (1) of the Constitution. 2, point 2, in danger. Concrete: In the case of online information offerings that, due to their technical characteristics, are not subject to the capacity constraints that exist for printed products, the quantitative ratio between permitted and non-charged contributions is generally less meaningful than with printed media. For the holistic view, it may therefore be important whether the contributions that conflict with the requirement of removal from the state characterize the overall offer. #

To put it more popularly: the distance requirement for the free press offer must be maintained. However, the number of journalistic articles in relation to official announcements is not important. The only important thing is that journalistic content must not characterize the overall impression of the media. It is therefore also permitted to a limited extent to report on content with local reference if it does not clearly compete with the offer of the free press. It is important that reporting on a municipal portal does not replace press reporting.

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