It has been proclaimed unconstitutional for the German intelligence agency BND to spy on foreign nationals abroad, the Federal Constitutional Court has ruled after outcry from journalists.

The court hearing was lobbied by journalists and civil rights groups, including the NGO Reporters Without Borders. The concerns raised centred around the vagueness and broadness of the legislation, which allowed BND agents to engage in the strategic surveillance of foreigners abroad – which had the potential to impede press freedoms, according to the plaintiffs.

A law introduced in early 2017 expanded the powers of the BND and essentially made it legal for it to spy on foreign nationals, without the need to prove sufficient reasons for suspicion or provide legal justification for doing so.

Der Spiegel later reported on the alleged interception of dozens of emails, faxes and phone calls – it claimed that this surveillance extended to the BBC, Reuters and the New York Times and had been taking place since 1999. It also reported that the agency monitored at least 50 journalists, according to a BND contact list that was leaked three years ago.

This is the first time that the BND has been officially brought under the German constitution after critics claimed that there was a lack of effective political oversight of the organisation. It now has until the end of 2021 to change its practices in compliance with the law.

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