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Far-right AfD: How should German media deal with the party?

May 2, 2024

Whether public or private, German media outlets have struggled to find a way of reporting about the far-right Alternative for Germany party.

A person holding a TV camera against a backdrop which reads Alternative fuer Deutschland
The AfD complains that it does not receive fair coverage Image: Martin Schutt/dpa/picture alliance

Germany's constitution, known as the Basic Law, guarantees freedom of the press and freedom of speech. The German media landscape comprises both public service broadcasters and private outlets. The former are financed by the license fee that all households have to pay, while the others depend on sales and advertising revenue.

Deutsche Welle (DW) is a special case: Germany's international broadcaster receives taxpayers' money from the budget of the Minister of State for Culture and the Media (BKM). Like other public broadcasters in Germany, DW is obliged to provide extensive and balanced reporting. This is monitored by committees whose members are representatives who span the breadth of German society, from politics to culture to industry to academics and sports, to name a few. 

AfD wants to abolish license fee

In its manifesto, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party states that Germany's public broadcasting service should find alternative funds. "Its compulsory funding must be abolished immediately and converted to pay television," argues the party. Elements of the AfD have been classified as right-wing extremist by Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution.

AfD party members have often argued that they are at a disadvantage in the media and that reporting by both public and private outlets is unfair towards them. They say, for example, that they are not invited enough to participate in TV talk shows.

However, people do not have a "right" to be invited to such shows. Editorial teams make decisions on whom to invite and this, too, is part of press freedom in Germany.

Moreover, in 2024, it is hardly the case that Germany's media outlets are neglecting the AfD. The party often crops up in reporting because polls predict that it will do well in the upcoming EU elections in June, as well as in the three German state elections taking place in September. More recently, it has also come under the spotlight because of fears that it is becoming more radical and suspicions that it is implicated in various espionage scandals, involving China, for example, as well as its relations with Russia.

AfD's Björn Höcke overshadows Bodo Ramelow

One of its most notorious figures, Björn Höcke, the leader of the party in the eastern state of Thuringia, has probably made a name for himself even outside of Germany by now.

The leader of the state's opposition, he is more famous than the actual state premier of Thuringia, Bodo Ramelow, from the socialist Left Party, whom he hopes to dethrone following the state election in September.

The media is particularly interested in why Höcke has become so influential within his party despite being arguably its most extremist politician. This has eclipsed the fact that Ramelow is the first and only person from the Left Party to be elected to the post of state premier.

On top of this, Höcke has appeared in court on charges of using a banned slogan once used by the Nazi paramilitary Sturmabteilung (SA) wing.

Thus, he has become a frequent topic in the German national media landscape, while Ramelow doesn't often make headlines outside Thuringia. On the other hand, it cannot be said that Höcke and the AfD appear so often in the media as entities with a voice: There is generally less talk with them than about them.

People demonstrate and hold a banner calling Höcke a Nazi
Höcke is accused of using Nazi slogans and faces trial Image: dpa

Controversial TV debate

One exception was a recent controversial television debate, when Höcke fought a live duel with Mario Voigt, a little-known politician from the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) who is also challenging Ramelow for the post of state premier of Thuringia. Broadcast by the private television channel Welt TV, the clash was supposed to last 45 minutes but went on for more than an hour.

The debate, which Welt TV staged like a spectacle in the boxing ring, was talked about constantly in the media in the days leading up to it.

For the prominent weekly magazine Spiegel, it was a mistake to have the debate in the first place. "Of course, after these 71 minutes, Höcke will appear to many as a little more normal and socially acceptable than before," it argued. 

However, Germany's most widely read newspaper, the tabloid Bild, published a piece by Oliver Lembcke, a political scientist at the University of Bochum, arguing just the opposite  that it made sense to engage with the far-right party: "The permanent running away, disinviting and marginalizing of the AfD, and always the same phrases regarding the risks, has allowed Höcke to develop into some kind of magician or dark lord."

Warning: The AfD may be hazardous to your health

For the German Federation of Journalists (DJV), all of Germany's media outlets should adjust their reporting about the AfD if the party as a whole is classified as being "right-wing extremist" by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution. Currently, three state branches of the AfD, including in Thuringia, already bear this designation. DJV chairperson Mika Beuster says that there should be a "clear warning, like on packs of cigarettes, in all articles."

The media expert Bernd Gäbler conducted two studies for the union-linked Otto Brenner Foundation in 2017 and 2018 and concluded that it was a difficult balancing act dealing with the AfD. He advised against falling into the trap of excluding the party completely but said that this did not mean that "AfD politicians have to take part in every forum or be approached for interviews in the same way as all other politicians."

"There is no need for journalism that is specifically tailored to the AfD," he also wrote. "What is more the case is that the AfD poses a new challenge to revisit old journalistic virtues and the classic tools of the trade."

This article was translated from German.

What to do about Germany's far-right AfD party?

Marcel Fürstenau
Marcel Fürstenau Berlin author and reporter on current politics and society.