Police radio play-by-play lands German Twitterer in trouble

I did this online journalism-related write-up last week for Spiegel International. It didn’t run there, so I’m posting it here (with permission, of course):

When a 71-year-old pensioner killed three people and wounded a fourth in a shooting spree last month in North Rhine-Westphalia, the police response unfolded in real time on Twitter. A user of the microblogging site, who was listening in on official radio communications taking place at the scene in the town of Schwalmtal, posted a running report of the suspect’s standoff with authorities.

The Twitter account was soon deleted, but not before much of user @JO31DH’s minute-by-minute account was repeated in blogs and other Twitter posts: “1 confirmed dead in rampage. … The commando unit has arrived on site … The forces will move to Hermmann-Löh Street in Amern … The helicopter is on Pletschweg … News channel N24 is also in Schwalmtal now.”

While listening in on police radio transmissions is legal in some countries, including the United States, it is forbidden in Germany and carries a penalty of up to two years’ imprisonment.

In the midst of the two-hour standoff, with reports coming in that the suspect had taken hostages, Philipp Ostrop, an editor at RuhrNachrichten.de, tweeted, “If there’s really a hostage situation in Schwalmtal, can the perpetrator follow along with @JO31DH on what the police are up to? Is that such a good thing?”

Other posts warned the user that what he was doing was illegal.

The anonymous twitterer claimed protection as a journalist: “I call myself the press. That’s enough… Now shut up.”

The next day the would-be journalist posted a contrite message on his blog (now also offline but quoted by the Rheinische Post): “I would like to formally apologize. I see, in spite of everything, how these social networks can be misused. I don’t feel good about this. I hope things will soon settle down and others won’t repeat this stupid idea.”

The newspaper later reported that authorities had identified the Twitter user and would file criminal charges. According to police, the man did not threaten the operation because the commando unit on the scene was using secure mobile phones to communicate.