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Court Ruling Stretches the Limits of Independent Media

Germany's highest court has ruled a law banning political parties from own shares in private broadcasting companies unconstitutional. The decision is atypical but no reason for alarm, said media expert Jo Groebel.

Judges at the Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe

Political parties can have a share in private broadcasters, but no influence, the court said

The ruling, which Germany's Federal Constitutional Court announced on Wednesday, March 12, allows for minimal involvement by political parties in private radio broadcasters, as long as the party has no control over programming.

At the same time, the court forbade "any political instrumentalization of broadcasters."

The decision applies to a 2000 Hesse state law that banned political party ownership in private media. Premier Roland Koch, a member of the Christian Democratic Union, said the law was intended to prevent a single party from gaining the political upper hand by influencing the media.

Germany's Social Democratic Party, whose party-run publishing company DDVG had owned a 2.3 percent share in the private radio broadcaster FFH, appealed the law, taking the case to the Constitutional Court.

The SPD is the only political party in Germany to maintain ownership in media organizations and has done so since the early 1970s. Companies sponsored by the parties have between a 0.5 percent and 11 percent share in 12 private broadcasters in six German states.

Jo Groebel

Groebel said Germany should be wary of any more political involvement in media

Baden-Wuerttemberg, Schleswig-Holstein and Thuringia, which have banned the involvement of political parties in private media, will have to review their laws. Bavaria, the largest state, in 2005 allowed for minimal participation only if the party was restricted from voting as a shareholder.

DW-WORLD.DE spoke with media expert Jo Groebel, the director of the German Digital Institute in Berlin, about the court decision and the influence of politics on Germany's media landscape.

DW-WORLD.DE: Are you surprised at the Constitutional Court's decision to allow political parties in Hesse to maintain minimal ownership in private broadcasters?

Jo Groebel: I'm slightly surprised because, in Germany in particular, there's always been the tendency to make a very strict distinction between political interests and parties on the one hand and public media in general. Germany has a past of very tricky interference by politics -- whether by government or parties -- in media and that has always steered and determined Germany's [media] policies.

Germany has public broadcasters that are funded by the government and its highest court has just decided political parties could have ownership in private broadcasters. In this context, how does Germany define freedom of the press?

There has always been a distinction between public broadcasting on the one hand and private media on the other. With public broadcasting, there is most definitely a certain influence not by the government but by political parties, even if it's only indirect. This mirrors, to a certain extent, the German system of representative democracy.

Public broadcasting commissions have influence on the election of chair people and even programming decisions. These commissions are also characterized by a large portion of party participation -- directly and indirectly via churches, unions, and other groups [which also have representation in the commissions]. But this can be perceived as mirroring democracy as it is represented by the parties.

A microphone

Are political parties deciding who is behind the microphone?

With private media, it is a completely different issue. We've got a dual system, which means that private media is basically free of political influence and only impacted by market developments.

In the past there have been major discussions about this, more related to the press than to broadcasting. The Social Democrats, for example, have a [40 percent] share in the Frankfurter Rundschau, which is a mid-leftwing newspaper, and there has been some concern that there could be an influence on editorial policy.

The SPD's ownership in the Hessian broadcaster FFH was very small at 2.3 percent. With such a minimal stake, did they have any influence at all?

The Social Democrats, or any other party, are not a commercial entity. One could ask why they're interested in having any share. My assumption -- and that's why I was slightly surprised by the court's decision -- is that there must be some kind of indirect influence. Though with such a small share, they mostly likely cannot influence decisions. FFH is not a station that focuses on political topics. Still, it's a very successful, large radio station and one could assume that influence is still possible, even with such a minority share.

However, I don't think it's a dramatic situation.

What's the situation in other European countries as far as political involvement in media goes?

It's very different. Let's look at one dramatic situation, in Italy when Berlusconi was prime minister -- and he may be back in office again very soon. Not only was he the biggest private media owner in Italy, but, through his office, he had a very strong influence on public broadcasting.

Judges at the Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe

The court's ruling only applies to private radio broadcasters

The dangers that this situation poses to democracy are clearly represented by what we saw in Italy in the past couple of years and may face again if Berlusconi returns to office.

Do you think that the court decision will impact the media laws in other German states?

I don't think it will have a major impact. In this case, I'd like to believe in the good in people and not assume that this is a signal for political parties in other German states to try something similar.

When [Oskar] Lafontaine -- who is now one of the leaders of the new Left party, which is creating hell for the Social Democrats -- belonged to the SPD and was state premier in Saarland, he immediately tried to influence the Saarbruecker Zeitung. The paper didn't report the way he wanted, and he tried to introduce media laws that would have allowed him to prohibit critical reporting.

There very often seems to be a temptation for politicians, political parties and governments -- even in democratic states -- to influence the press or at least have some impact on it. I think that, due to its past, the Germans are particularly sensitive to any interference between media on the one hand and parties and politics on the other. For example, the Hugenberg media company is said to have prepared the Nazi regime via a monopoly of the press.

I suppose that this court decision is not a dramatic situation, but we should always be alert to prevent any tendencies that go beyond today's decision.

Disclaimer: Deutsche Welle is a publically funded media organization.

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