A German news portal has come under fire for fabricating a report about a terror attack in the southwestern city of Mannheim. Now the public prosecutor is probing whether the fake story constitutes a criminal offense.
The office of Mannheim's public prosecutor announced Monday it was reviewing a fake article published by the Rheinneckarblog to assess whether it had violated any laws.
The blog's report, posted online on Sunday, warned in graphic terms that "the largest terror attack in Western Europe" was unfolding in Mannheim, south of Frankfurt. It said some 50 attackers armed with knives and machetes had killed 136 people at 25 different crime scenes in a "bloodbath of apocalyptic proportions."
"All over the place, in the streets, lifeless bodies are strewn across the ground," the piece read. "The smell of blood hangs in the air. The wounded scream or beg for help."
The report was almost immediately dismissed by local police, who took to Twitter to assure people it was a "fabricated text."
"The described facts are not real," the tweet said.
On social media, the Rheinneckarblog describes itself as a local, journalistic information portal for Germany's southwestern Rhine-Neckar region. It also claims to be "honest, transparent, profound."
'Need for debate'
According to the blog's editorial team, their servers went into meltdown and they received hundreds of abusive messages in the hours after the article went live.
They defended their decision to publish the piece, saying in a subsequent post that their aim hadn't been to spark panic, but to stimulate debate about possible future threats — including fake news. "Germany is no longer safe. What can we do? — that is an interesting and necessary topic of debate."
"We have published fake news that could be real news tomorrow."
Read more: 'Journalism is full of gray areas'
Editorial director Hardy Prothmann said the article had been in the pipeline for several months, and that Mannheim's chief of police and the mayor had been informed about it. Both had advised the blog against publication.
"Initially we followed their request," Prothmann said, adding, however, that he had been compelled by "current events" to go ahead with the post. He argued the story was an example of "Gonzo journalism," and contained multiple hints making it clear it was not based on fact.
'Unsettling the public'
The German Press Council said it had received four complaints and was considering whether to launch proceedings against the blog for violating Section 1 of the Press Code, which stipulates that "respect for the truth," and "informing the public truthfully," are the most important commandments of the press.
"The complainants accuse the blog of spreading a massive untruth and purposely unsettling the population," press council spokeswoman Sonja Volkmann-Schluck told German Protestant press service epd.
The head of Germany's Federation of Journalists, Frank Überall, said he wasn't convinced by the blog's explanation.
"To use the name of a journalistic medium to spread disinformation — even if it's just as a test — I think it's wrong," he said. "I can understand if the blog is suggesting we need to have a debate about disinformation. But the text comes across as a serious article, not as gonzo or satire."
nm/rt (dpa, epd)