Marx and Engels in Neue Rheinische Zeitung July 1848

The Prussian Press Bill [170]

Source: MECW Volume 7, p. 250;
Written: by Marx on July 19, 1848
First published: in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung No. 50, July 20, 1848;

Cologne, July 19. We had thought that today we might be able to amuse our readers once again with the agreement debates, in particular to present to them the brilliant speech of Deputy Baumstark, but events prevent us from doing so.

Charity begins at home. When the existence of the press is threatened, even Deputy Baumstark is abandoned.

Herr Hansemann has submitted to the Agreement Assembly a provisional press law. The paternal solicitude of Herr Hansemann for the press calls for immediate consideration.

In former times the Code Napoléon was beautified by the most edifying headings of the Prussian Law.. Now, after the revolution, this has been changed: now, the Prussian Law is enriched by the most fragrant blossoms of the Code and the September Laws. Duchâtel, of course, is no Bodelschwingh.

We have already several days ago given the main points of the press Bill.’ No sooner had a defamation trial given us the chance to prove that Articles 367 and 368 of the Code pénal stand in starkest contradiction to freedom of the press, than Herr Hansemann proposes not only to extend them to the entire kingdom — but also to make them three times worse. We rediscover in the new draft all that has already become dear and valued to us by practical experience:

We find it prohibited — on pain of imprisonment from three months to three years — to make a charge against anybody which would make him punishable by law or merely “expose him to public contempt”. We find it prohibited to demonstrate the truth of the matter in any other way than by a “valid legal document”, in short, we rediscover the most classical monuments of the Napoleonic despotism over the press.

Indeed, Herr Hansemann keeps his promise to let the old provinces share in the advantages of Rhenish legislation!

Paragraph 10 of the Bill tops all these regulations: in the case of calumny directed at state officials in respect to the exercise of their official duties, the ordinary punishment may be increased by half.

If an official in the exercise or on the occasion (à l'occasion) of the exercise of his duties is insulted in words (outrage par parole), the punishment under Article 222 of the Penal Code is a prison sentence of from one month to two years. Despite the benevolent efforts of the Public Prosecutor’s office, this article has hitherto not been used against the press, and for very good reasons. In order to remedy this situation, Herr Hansemann has transformed this article into the above-mentioned Paragraph 10. In the first place, “on the occasion” is transformed into the more convenient “in respect to the exercise of their duties”. Secondly, the troublesome par parole is changed to par écrit. In the third place, the penalty is trebled.

From the day when this Bill becomes law, Prussian officials may relax. If Herr Pfuel brands Polish hands and ears with lunar caustic and the press publishes it — four and a half months to four and a half years imprisonment! If citizens are inadvertently thrown into prison even though it is known that they are not the right ones and the press communicates this fact — four and a half months to four and a half years imprisonment! If Landräte turn themselves into commis voyageurs for reaction and collectors of signatures for royalist addresses and the press unmasks these gentlemen — four and a half months to four and a half years imprisonment!

From the day when this Bill becomes law, officials, may with impunity carry out any arbitrary act, any tyrannical and any unlawful act. They may calmly administer beatings or order them, arrest and detain people without a hearing; the press, the only effective control, has been rendered ineffective. On the day when this Bill becomes law, the bureaucracy may celebrate a festival: it will have become mightier, less restrained and stronger than it was in the pre-March period.

Indeed, what remains of freedom of the press if that which deserves public contempt can no longer be held up to public contempt?

According to the laws hitherto in force the press could at least adduce facts to back up its general assertions and accusations. This will now come to an end. The press will no longer report, it will be allowed merely to speak in general phrases so that well-meaning people from Herr Hansemann down all the way to the beer-parlour politicians will have the right to say that the press is merely reviling and is not proving anything! Precisely for this reason the press is being prohibited from offering proofs!

We recommend, by the way, that Herr Hansemann make the following addition to his well-meaning draft. He should also declare it punishable to expose the officials to public ridicule besides penalising their exposure to public contempt. This omission might otherwise be painfully regretted.

We will not go in detail into the paragraphs dealing with obscenity or the regulations concerning confiscations etc. They surpass the crime of the press legislation of Louis Philippe and the Restoration. We do want to mention just one regulation: under Paragraph 21, the Public Prosecutor may request the confiscation not only of materials already printed but even of a manuscript which has only just been handed over for printing, if its contents condone a crime or offence that is liable to official prosecution! What a wide field of activity for philanthropic prosecutors! What a charming diversion to be able to go at any time to newspaper offices and demand to be shown for examination any “manuscript which has just been handed over for printing” since it might just be possible that it condoned a crime or offence!

Compared with this, how odd seems the ‘ solemn paragraph of the draft Constitution and of the “Fundamental Rights of the German Nation” which reads: The censorship can never again be restored!