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German Media Under Fire From Muslims

Vedat Acikgöz (sp)June 20, 2005

The media in Germany is often accused, not least by Muslims in the country, of being one-sided and clichéd when it comes to reporting on them. Journalists deny it, saying discernment and responsibility are important.

Does the German media serve up stereotypes?Image: dpa

Not only Muslims living in Germany, but also cultural experts routinely criticize the German media for reinforcing stereotypes and being too subjective in its reporting of Muslim topics.

A look at the German media certainly lends some credence to the allegations. For instance, the newsmagazine Focus ran a headline on its cover recently which referred to "unsettling guests."

The story was about Muslims of Turkish origin living in Germany -- people who, in reality, have been living in Germany for decades and have long ceased being "guests." Nonetheless, the word "unsettling" presented them collectively as a threat to German society.

The facts, no matter how unpleasant

However, representatives of the German media have defended themselves against the allegations, insisting that they can't be applied across the board to all publications. Jörg Lau, a reporter at the respected intellectual weekly Die Zeit, also found Focus' choice of words "scandalous," but he insisted that the media couldn't just ignore real problems in the country.

"It's the media's job to call things -- which they see as wrong -- by what they are, even when it's viewed as unpleasant by others," Lau said. "That also applies when people feel discriminated through it."

Many Muslims in Germany feel discriminated against because news stories featuring Muslims usually spark an avalanche of stories in the German media which anchor a negative image of their culture in the public consciousness. The recent case of an alleged honor killing in Berlin involving a young Turkish woman was such an example.

Despite balanced reporting by individual journalists on topics such as honor killings or forced marriages, readers are often left with the impression that the entire Muslim community is abusive toward women.

Provocative headlines

Coverbild Spiegel 37/2003
Spiegel cover on conspiracy theories surrounding the 9-11 terror attacks.Image: Der Spiegel

The issue has taken on an added urgency in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the US, as articles on Muslims and Islam appear more frequently in the media.

Jörg Lau admitted that not every newspaper and radio or television channel was objective in its reporting, but underlined the importance of considering the source. For instance, the headline "Allah's Daughters Without Rights" -- which ran on the cover of the esteemed newsmagazine Spiegel to address the problems faced by Turkish women in Germany -- was perfectly acceptable, said Lau. That didn't keep many Muslims in Germany from being angered by it though.

"I didn't find the headline wrong or misleading, after all, the story was about the rights of the affected women," Lau said. "However the Focus headline "Unsettling Guests" was demagogy -- that should be criticized. There, the German media should be careful and self-critical."

Joachim Kandel, an expert on Islam at the Friedrich Ebert Foundation said that baiting readers with provocative headlines or top stories was part of the German media culture and wasn't just confined to Islamic topics.

"Such sentences are provocative but other topics and other minorities are reported on with equally provocative leads," Kandel said. "But when you read the article in full then you conclude that it usually contains balanced arguments."

At the same time, Kandel said that the media has to be allowed to air uncomfortable facts. "We also have a problem with how Muslims want to define their lifestyles based on the Koran and the Sunna (Islamic practices) when it comes to human rights, democracy, pluralism. Those are serious questions that must be discussed."

Responsible or not?

Deutsche Tageszeitungen
Image: Bilderbox

Journalist Lau pointed out that the debate reflected changing realities in Germany, adding that people here had ignored for too long the fact that migrants from Muslim countries such as Turkey would stay permanently in Germany.

"People are really unnerved, but not because the others are perhaps 'unsettling' but because people are in a new situation," Lau said. "Germany is a country of immigrants now."

Kandel hinted at another development: the fact that, in part because of the Muslim population, religion today plays a bigger role in Germany than it did 10 years ago. He said that it was good if the German media followed the development -- even if they were criticized for it -- because it was the only way they could enlighten readers.

"I think most media consumers in Germany are aware that there is a difference between the religion Islam and radical Islamism," Kandel said, adding that was a success for the German media.

At the same time, Kandel said that, compared to other European countries, Germany had witnessed less of a backlash on its Muslim community in the aftermath of Sept. 11. "I trace that to the responsibility displayed by the German media," he said.