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Germany’s President Stops Publication of Threatening Call

Germany's President Stops Publication of Threatening Call

BERLIN — A day after a televised interview in which he promised greater openness and transparency, the president of Germany, Christian Wulff, refused on Thursday to allow the country’s biggest-selling newspaper to publish a transcript of a threatening voice mail message he left for the newspaper’s editor.

The exchange between the president and Kai Diekmann, editor of the newspaper Bild, threatens to keep alive a scandal that Mr. Wulff had sought to put behind him in the interview, which was watched by about 11.5 million Germans on Wednesday evening.

It began last month when Bild reporters started checking into a private loan that Mr. Wulff received from the wife of a wealthy friend while he was governor of Lower Saxony. Mr. Wulff subsequently denied, when questioned, that he had had any business with the friend.

Before Bild published its article about the loan, Mr. Wulff left an irate message in Mr. Diekmann’s voice mail, threatening “war” if the paper went ahead with the article, according to excerpts released by Bild to the German news media.

In the interview on Wednesday, Mr. Wulff apologized for the message, saying that he had merely wanted Bild to delay the report for one day while he was traveling in the Middle East. His lawyer released a six-page memo about the episode to reporters on Thursday as part of what Mr. Wulff said in the interview was an effort to be open about what had happened.

But Mr. Diekmann said in an open letter published on Thursday that Mr. Wulff had been less than forthcoming.

“In order to prevent misunderstandings regarding the content and motive of your phone call, we view it as necessary to publish a transcript of your message,” Mr. Diekmann wrote. He asked Mr. Wulff for permission to do so, in keeping with German laws regarding the privacy of personal communications.

In his own open letter, Mr. Wulff said no. “The words that were spoken in an exceptionally emotional situation were intended for you and no one else,” he wrote. “I apologized to you shortly afterwards. You accepted this apology. That put an end to the dispute between us, and I believe that it should remain so.”

Benno H. Pöppelmann, a legal expert at the German Association of Journalists, told Reuters that there was a strong argument against considering Mr. Wulff’s phone message to be private, meaning that Bild could release the transcript without his permission.

The dispute highlights the power that Bild wields in the German political landscape. While he was governor, Mr. Wulff managed to maintain positive relations with Bild despite a divorce and remarriage to a younger woman, the kind of news that tabloid newspapers like Bild often sink their teeth into. Bild’s mixture of hard political reporting, society news and sex is read by about three million people daily.

Other German politicians have been brought down by news media coverage in recent years. A barrage of reports claiming that Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg had plagiarized more than half of his doctoral thesis led him to resign as defense minister in 2011, and Mr. Wulff’s predecessor, Horst Köhler, stepped down in 2010 after media criticism of remarks he made about Afghanistan.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has remained largely removed from the scandal surrounding Mr. Wulff, whom she picked to run for the largely ceremonial presidency in 2010. Both are Christian Democrats. If Mr. Wulff resigns, Ms. Merkel will face criticism for choosing him and what could be a protracted and divisive search for a successor.

Members of her governing coalition sought to return to business as usual on Thursday, apparently satisfied with Mr. Wulff’s responses in the 21-minute broadcast interview. The opposition, however, was not.

“The Wulff affair is not over yet,” said Thomas Oppermann, parliamentary spokesman for the largest opposition party, the Social Democrats. “Did President Wulff want to prevent the critical report or delay it? Did he accept unjustified advantages or not? Did he violate his duties as governor? These questions have not been fully cleared up.”

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