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Diversity deficit

Michael ScaturroApril 9, 2013

Germany's media and arts scenes aren't representative of its multi-ethnic society. But that could be changing. A Berlin theater company is making sure it does, by training up young people with international backgrounds.

A man with a TV camera
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

When German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared multiculturalism here "an utter failure" back in 2010, she might also have been referring to the country's media landscape. Recent data from the University of Bremen show that Germany's television and radio programs are much less diverse than society as a whole.

But a program at Berlin's Ballhaus Naunynstrasse, called The Academy of Autodidacts, aims to turn the statistics around. It is educating youths with international backgrounds in filmmaking and journalism so they can stand in front of the camera one day, said its director, Veronika Gerhard.

"In Germany, we still have the situation that people of migrant origins have a hard time entering academy, or academia in general. To be in the arts still is a bourgeois thing," Gerhard said.

Self-expression though film

Youths in the program have created two films so far, focusing on kids with Turkish and Arab backgrounds. They wrote, shot and edited with help from professional mentors from the media industry.

The latest film deals with being black in Germany. There are about a half-million Africans and Afro-Germans living in the country, but Michael Götting, an Afro-German newspaper journalist and mentor in the program, said black people are hardly present in the media.

"I think it's very important to speak about blackness, to think about blackness, to make it public," Götting said, "because in Germany there's still very little debate about it. There are very few people in the public who are black."

Janine Jambere
Janine Jambere is a mentor at The Academy of AutodidactsImage: Mehmet Can Kocak

Another mentor in The Academy of Autodidacts, Janine Jambere, added that participants in the program can show their films to admissions boards when applying to art schools and universities, and thus further their careers in the media.

Feeling like an outsider

Amanda, a 19-year-old participant, was born in Rwanda, came to Duisburg as a child, and recently relocated to the German capital. Although she has never faced explicit discrimination in Germany, she says white Germans she meets sometimes ask to touch her hair or skin, or call her "50 Cent" or the names of other American rappers.

"And often people speak really slowly when they meet me because they expect me not to speak German, which is weird because black people have been living in Germany for ages," Amanda added.

Amanda used to think things were getting better for minorities, both in the media and in society in general. But then in 2011 it was discovered that the NSU, a neo-Nazi group, had committed a string of murders over a number of years without getting caught. This sent off alarm bells among immigrants, and called into question the government's commitment to protecting minorities living here.

Amanda said she just wants to be treated normally - not like an oddity or an object of curiosity. "I want people to accept another reality, the reality I see: that Germany isn't totally white. Because I think it's still very denied," she said.

Germany's image of itself

In an interview with DW, Sabine Schiffer of Germany's Institute for Responsibility in the Media (IMV) agreed with Amanda's statement. "This also corresponds to the results of studies and surveys - we still discern ourselves as a white nation," she said.

Schiffer added soap operas and other entertainment programs fail to depict the reality of life in Germany. News broadcasts may also be reinforcing negative stereotypes, in part because there aren't enough minority journalists in Germany.

She cited a study by the University of Bremen, which found that every fifth person in Germany has an immigration background - but only one in 50 journalists. Though there have been attempts to introduce diversity to news programs, Schiffer said this amounts to window dressing.

"The people working in the media form a certain class - it's like politicians, who are also a certain class," she said. "There are people who want to change it, but there are also people who want to save everything as it is. And what I observe very often is that there's a big unconsciousness."

Dunja Hayali
Anchor Dunja Hayali, German with an Iraqi background, is a role modelImage: imago

Miltiadis Oulios, a Greek-German journalist, said one of the biggest issues he faced in launching his career was getting his foot in the door.

"Discrimination is often indirect," Oulios said. "I was once recommended for a job. They hadn't seen my work before, and the first question this editor asked me was, can you even write in German properly? My qualifications were questioned. Someone with a German-sounding name would never have this problem."

Media is slowly becoming more diverse

News anchor Dunja Hayali told DW that she thinks things are getting better. Hayali has hosted the morning news on German public television station ZDF since 2007. By her account, she's the country's first minority anchorwoman.

"When I started," Hayali said, "I got lots of letters from young people from international backgrounds who felt inspired by me. They wanted to go into the media - they used to think this was an impossible goal. I didn't realize I was going to have such an influence, but I did and others have followed. Young people now believe they have a chance - and they do."

Hayali did concede that German television still needs to do a better job of including minorities and of looking at the person's skills, not at his or her background.

"I want us to get to a place where all that matters is what a person can do, not where he or she is from," Hayali said.

The Academy of Autodidacts is turning out one group of future media professionals who will do just that.