March 29, 2023

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BERLIN — German officials plan to prosecute people who display the “Z” symbol associated with Russia’s war in Ukraine.

The Interior Ministry said Monday it welcomed announcements by several regional states that people who use the symbol will face legal action on the basis of a law that forbids the public approval of illegal acts.

Germans could fall foul of the law if they paint the symbol on property, display it during demonstrations or publish it online. If found guilty, they could be fined or jailed for up to three years, according to the criminal code.

The white “Z” became a symbol of Russia’s war after being painted on military vehicles taking part in the invasion of Ukraine. Its meaning is not clear; some believe it represents a military zone, others suggest it refers to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The Russian Defense Ministry has indicated it stands for “za pobedu,” meaning “for victory.”

The symbol has been adopted by Russians to show support for the war. Russian gymnast Ivan Kuliak wore the symbol at an international event in Doha and Kremlin-backed propaganda outlet RT has launched “Z”-related merchandise.

An Interior Ministry spokesperson said security authorities were aware that the symbol was already being used in Germany but did not provide more detail.

The German states of Berlin, Bavaria, Saxony and Lower Saxony have all announced they will take legal action against people using the symbol. Officials in three more states — Baden-Württemberg, North Rhine-Westphalia, and Saxony-Anhalt — have said they are looking into similar measures.

Michael Roth, a member of Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats who chairs the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee, welcomed the announcements.

“The ‘Z’ has become a symbol of an authoritarian regime, which is conducting a terrible war of aggression, breaking international law, gagging freedom of expression and making lies the norm,” Roth tweeted. “Anyone in our country who uses the ‘Z’ is making themselves into a vassal of the Russian regime and must be punished.”

Wolfgang Kubicki, an MP from the liberal Free Democrats, who are also part of the ruling coalition, added his backing for the move.

“A liberal constitutional state must be able to withstand a lot when it comes to freedom of expression and assembly,” Kubicki said. But he added: “Publicly condoning ongoing criminal wars of aggression using propagandistic symbolism is no longer part of that if it disturbs the public peace.”

However, online critics accused the government of tokenism and questioned how it could be implemented.

Jörg Heidrich, a lawyer who specializes in IT law and is a member of the German Press Council that self-regulates media outlets, said the decision poses “great legal difficulties.”

He suggested “provocateurs” could present law enforcement authorities with “major problems” by finding ways to use the symbol that are right on the boundaries of legality.

“So far, there seem to have been no judicial decisions on the issue, only rather political statements of opinion,” Heidrich added.

The Interior Ministry of Lower Saxony said it was aware of “isolated cases” of the use of the “Z” symbol so far — on buildings, on a car and on a Russian flag that was on private property but visible to the public.

Germany is home to some of the most stringent online hate speech rules in the West. Social media companies including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have to take down illegal content within 24 hours of being notified of violations or face penalties up to €50 million under a law known as NetzDG.

Such unlawful posts include propaganda and symbols of “unconstitutional organizations” such as the Nazi swastika and the flag of ISIS. However, the rules do not apply to research, art, teaching or journalistic content.

Clothilde Goujard contributed reporting.



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