Study findings on the state of freedom of speech for writers in Germany are "shocking." Attacks and threats, often via social media, can lead to self-censure — but study backers told DW there were "uplifting" results.
A study on the state of freedom of speech in Germany has returned "shocking results," Germany's PEN Center said on Wednesday when the research was published.
The center, a member of the worldwide PEN International organization dedicated to defending freedom of expression, undertook the study, entitled "Free speech under pressure" (Das freie Wort unter Druck), along with the Institute for Media Research at the University of Rostock in northeast Germany.
The study's backers said their survey was the first concrete, empirical examination of the free-speech climate in Germany.
Worried writers in Germany
Researchers used a standardized online form to ask writers belonging to the German Writers' Association about their personal perception of freedom of speech and their individual experiences with attacks, as well as how such incidents have affected their work.
Out of a total of 526 respondents, 3 out of 4 expressed concerns about freedom of speech. Additionally, 60 percent saw social media as a threat to their artistic and written expression.
Roughly one in two writers both knew of a colleague who had experienced an instance of violence, threats, hateful actions or intimidation attempts, and the same amount said they had experienced attacks against their own person.
Social media was the medium for 37 percent of attacks, while direct personal verbal attacks accounted for 31 percent. Only 2 percent of writers reported having experienced physical attacks.
"These are shocking results that are not expected in a free, democratic society," Carlos Collado Seidel, the German PEN secretary general, said in a press statement, adding that fundamental values of freedom of speech and tolerance towards differences of opinion were under pressure.
"A further erosive process is threatening plurality and free thought and with it, the core of our society," Seidel expanded.
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Shying away from critical topics
His remarks pointed back to the second element of the study, which revealed how writers have been affected by threats and attacks, both psychologically and in their work.
One out of four writers who had experienced such incidents said they had become more careful in evaluating events, while one in five said they cover controversial topics less frequently.
At the same time, 60 percent also said that the attacks they have experienced have led them to position themselves through their work with more confidence.
A 'positive message' now needed
PEN's Callado Seidel countered the idea that by taking up stronger positions, writers could reinforce existing polarization in society.
"I don't see this result as leading to more polarization," he told DW. "It's an uplifting result — that writers feel strengthened in their work rather than defeated. The goal of hatespeech is to try to silence people."
In terms of taking steps to overcome the negative free-speech climate described in the study, Callado Seidel said that the majority of society, and not the small but vocal aggressive minority, needs to be in the center of public visibility.
"The omnipresence of this right-wing mob does not reflect the social reality. Reality is colorful, diverse, tolerant. Now it's about strengthening these individuals and the broader society," he said. "We need to stand up to them [attackers] with a positive message."
The researchers said they were overwhelmed by the high participation in the study, which was held over one month this past summer.
"This is a topic that strongly preoccupies writers," Rostock's media center director Elizabeth Prommer said. "This alarm signal must be taken seriously."
The results of the study will be presented on Wednesday at the Frankfurt Book Fair in a podium discussion event.