Germany an example for press freedom? Not really.Image: DW/fotozon - Fotolia.com
January 19, 2011
Press freedom in Germany is guaranteed by the constitution. Yet critics warn the media is by no means free from political and economic influences. In the global press freedom table, Germany is ranked only number 17.
The German constitution says that freedom of the press is guaranteed. And Germany never hesitates to point the finger at countries where it thinks press freedom is in danger. The controversy over the new media law in Hungary is a case in point. Yet in Germany itself there is evidence that sometimes press freedom seems to be somewhat less free than the constitution envisages.
In 2005, police raided the offices of the Berlin based magazine Cicero after its printed an article on Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al Zarqawi. The story contained information from secret files from the Federal Criminal Police.
Official justification for the raid was that the magazine had been "aiding and abetting the disclosure of confidential information." The home of the article's author was also searched by the police. The incident was highly controversial - decried as an outright attack against press freedom.
Germany far from top of the rank
In fact, Germany is ranked only number 17 on the global index of press freedom. The ranking is published by the organization Reporters Without Borders, founded in 1985 in France.
The top of the table has been occupied for years by the Scandinavian countries. In Sweden for instance the authorities are actually encouraged to protect informants - something that is not the case in Germany, says Michael Rediske, head of the German section of Reporters Without Borders.
"We again and again are seeing attacks against the protection of informants," he told Deutsche Welle. "For instance there are cases where the offices of newspapers or TV stations are being searched."
But the picture is not only bleak.
"One positive development is that only recently Germany's highest court declared one such raid of a small radio station to be unconstitutional," Rediske added. "So from the perspective of Reporters Without Borders, things seem to be getting a bit better."
It's the courts which are safeguarding press freedom, Rediske explained. On several occasions already they have ruled in favor of the media. One instance was a planned law that would have given authorities the right to secretly monitor people's private computers, should the police feel they had reason to do so. The law was blocked by the courts.
Another example was the plan to store telecommunications data from private individuals even when there are no grounds for suspicion. The plan was ruled unconstitutional but the current government is still debating a new attempt at the legislation.
The enemies of politics?
But there are other, more subtle dangers to press freedom. The constitution guarantees that public television and radio should be entirely independent from political influence. Yet the supervisory boards of public broadcasters are partly staffed with politicians. In fact, the highest positions - like that of director-general - are allocated along party lines. And for a career in public media, being a member of one of the two big political parties can be a crucial asset.
One example of how this can go wrong happened at the ZDF television channel - one of the two big national public broadcasters. In 2009, the advisory board blocked the renewal of the contract of long-time editor-in-chief Nikolaus Brender. The conservative Christian Democrats had a majority on the board and it was especially Roland Koch, the then-premier of Hesse, one of Germany's 16 states, who spoke out in favor of Brender's replacement.
The case led to widespread criticism, with the country's leading journalists all warning of a dangerous attempt to bring political influence to bear over the media.
"The political scene has lost its ability to handle criticism," the chairman of German journalists' union DJV, Michael Konken, told Deutsche Welle. He warns that there's a widening gap between politics and the media.
"Journalists are perceived simply as enemies," he said. "And consequently politicians strive to exert influence over the media to ensure positive coverage. Instead, politics should try to protect press freedom and unbiased reporting."
Economic pressure and self censorship
Another threat to press freedom is the economic framework within which media organizations have to work. Powerful publishing houses dominate entire regions of the country - leading to clear limitations as to diversity in reporting. Also, there's pressure not to offend major advertising clients.
"This certainly has an impact on press freedom - and it strengthens what you could call self-censorship," Michael Rediske warned. He said there's increasing pressure on journalists to be not too critical of those companies the newspaper or broadcaster receive money from through advertising.
Germany's constitution leaves very little doubt or room for interpretations: Article 5 says that "press freedom and freedom of reporting are guaranteed. There is no censorship." And yet it seems there still are numerous examples that indicate that this ideal can be difficult to uphold in real life.
Author: Marcel Fürstenau/ai Editor: Michael Lawton