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DW turns 70 — and gains importance amid world crises

May 10, 2023

Deutsche Welle (DW) was launched as Germany's international broadcaster 70 years ago, amid the Cold War. Today, the world faces many of the same challenges again.

The Deutsche Welle logo hangs on a flagpole
Image: Christoph Hardt/Geisler-Fotopress/picture alliance

"The red stamp in my passport clears the way," Juri Rescheto explained in early March 2022. "Out of the Russian Federation, into the EU. Shortly before midnight I will be allowed to leave Russian territory."

On a cold winter's night 14 months ago, Rescheto, bureau chief of DW's Moscow studio, crossed the long bridge over the river separating the Russian town of Ivangorod and the Estonian city of Narva. He was the last German journalist working for DW in Russia to leave the country that had banned his work and his employer. According to the Kremlin leadership, DW is a "foreign agent."

'The pressure is enormous'

DW marks 70 years at a time when, as the example of the colleagues working in Russia shows, media are under pressure worldwide. Germany's taxpayer-funded international broadcaster is no exception. "The pressure on freedom of the press is enormous, and that is why our work remains enormously important," DW director general Peter Limbourg said.

Deutsche Welle turns 70

Recently, DW's "travel security and emergencies" department has fielded a record high number of enquiries. Sometimes they are in relation to problems at far-right demonstrations in Germany. But the main concern is for colleagues in other parts of the world – in Russia and Afghanistan, as well as some countries in Africa and South America. According to the department, sometimes someone has been briefly detained, sometimes there is a mysterious attack. The alarm bells are always ringing.

DW journalist and TV moderator Jaafar Abdul-Karim surrounded by guests and audience
Jaafar Abdul-Karim brought 'Shabab Talk' to Baghdad in 2015Image: DW

In early February of this year for instance, Jaafar Abdul Karim, the most well-known host of DW's Arabic programming, and his team had to cancel a planned production in Baghdad and quickly flee the country because of threats. According to Abdul Karim, they came under increasing pressure from high-ranking Iraqi leaders.

Konrad Adenauer and DW editor Hans Wendt during a 1963 interview
German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and DW Editor Hans Wendt in 1963Image: DW

This is part of the media landscape in which DW finds itself in 2023. Its story began 70 years ago with words from Germany's political leadership: "Dear listeners in faraway countries..." began the introduction by German President Theodor Heuss as DW took to the airwaves in 1953. At that time, the aim was to "give listeners abroad a political, economic and cultural picture of Germany."

Broadcasting on short-wave radio from its headquarters in Cologne, initially only in the German language, DW achieved a listenership in many parts of the world. In 1954, the first foreign languages were added. In 1992 DW branched out into television and shortly afterwards into online.

The days of short-wave radio have long since passed. "We have tackled digitalization; we have drawn up a clear strategy. We have become an international media outlet with a clear focus on users," Director general Peter Limbourg said. Today, the broadcaster is strongly focused on the internet, on social media and partner networks. Limbourg has been at the helm of the organization for nine years, during which time he has strengthened its international profile.

From listeners to followers

The term "broadcaster" covers a substantial variety of productions and offerings: TV shows and various audio offerings as well as online news in 32 languages and a wide range of social media activities. Smartphones are becoming increasingly important. The listeners of yesteryear are today mostly young followers.

Something which is not well known within Germany: DW Akademie is the country's leading organization for international media development. Since 1965 it has trained thousands of journalists. When German politicians travel abroad, they often meet people who tell them how they have been influenced by DW.

On DW's 70th anniversary, there are echoes of the difficult political situation the world was in when DW was first founded. There is again talk of a Cold War, while freedom of the press and of opinion is endangered worldwide.

"International journalism is facing the massive challenge that it needs to remain accessible for the people, because all over the world autocrats are making efforts to block us, sometimes to censor us, and I think that is something which threatens international journalism," Limbourg said. "All of us who believe in democratic values and who stand up for plurality in the world must work together so that we can continue to be accessible for our users, the people who need us. This is the main challenge that we have to face."

Against racism, antisemitism, and discrimination

In late 2021, DW faced accusations concerning antisemitism. Those were related to statements on social media accounts of some employees in the Arabic department and the positions taken by some partner broadcasters. Editorial mistakes in reporting about Israel were also discussed.

According to Limbourg, DW reacted to the allegations immediately and decisively, including commissioning an external review. Several people were fired. "Because there is no place at DW for such ideas. However, the independent investigation also confirmed that the editorial offering of DW in this regard was beyond reproach." The director general also referred to several training formats "with which we are once again sensitizing all DW employees and conveying the values we all stand for here." DW wants to take a clear stance against racism, antisemitism, and discrimination.

"DW's employees are the key to its success," reads the DW mission statement. Currently, about 3,700 people work for DW at its offices in Bonn and Berlin. They come from more than 60 nationalities. This makes the broadcaster one of the most multiculturally staffed organizations in Germany. The number of correspondents in Africa, Asia and South America has grown in recent years.

'We've not been silenced'

Reflecting on his time in leadership, Limbourg said: "We have managed to significantly increase the budget." Currently, however, many employees in Bonn and Berlin are facing the loss of their positions because of cuts. Whenever the global pressure on democracy and media freedom grows, the challenges increase, as do the costs.

For example, since the Russian invasion there have always been several employees reporting from Ukraine, also often in the east of the country. And what of Juri Rescheto, who ran DW's Moscow studio until March 2022? He is now leading a newly set up DW studio in the Latvian capital of Riga.

"We are here, we are not dead and we are not silenced," he said. The team can work freely in Riga: "Here, we can say what we want to say." And he knows: "We are being heard, seen, and read."

This article was originally written in German.

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing.


Deutsche Welle Strack Christoph Portrait
Christoph Strack Christoph Strack is a senior author writing about religious affairs.@Strack_C