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Press freedom

January 12, 2011

China, Zimbabwe and Iran all come to mind in discussions about press freedom - not Germany. But Michael Konken, chairman of journalists' union DJV explains why journalism in Germany is endangered.

Woman blindfolded
European journalists don't fear for their lives, but can be gagged by publishersImage: DW/fotozon - Fotolia.com

DW: The DJV has recently made waves with a series of films concerning threats to journalism. Was there any particular reason for the films?

Michael Konken: The film series is one way we're drawing attention to the situation journalism is facing. In the coming year, we'll be holding a number of events aimed at informing the public that journalism is under a lot of pressure right now.

We need journalism in a democracy; it has to provide quality and be appreciated. Over the past few years, we've noticed that this appreciation has ebbed, particularly in the eyes of publishers and perhaps also the public.

The first film in the series shows a journalist who begins typing a sentence on a typewriter with the words "The government..." Then, as he's typing, he is shot. It's a drastic scene that probably has more to do with journalists in countries other than Germany.

The video exaggerates a bit, of course. But the problem is that many journalists these days cannot be as critical as they would like to be. We don't have to look far: In Hungary, for example, there's now a media law that limits freelance journalists.

But there are problems with journalism in Italy, France and Germany, too. We don't always have to look to China or Russia and point the finger at them and say, "There's no freedom of the press." There are problems here, too.

What about the situation in Germany worries you the most?

We're most worried by the fact that there are plans to store more personal data, so that it can be determined later whether an informant had leaked details to the press. This effectively violates informant protection.

We're also concerned about searches conducted in editorial offices, which have happened in the past, and about dealings between publishers and editors. It happens now and again that publishers put pressure on their editors not to publish certain articles that might drive advertisers away.

These are the main problems we have. So you can see that, even in Germany, press freedom has to be constantly protected and fought for.

You said you think that journalism is being valued less and less. How did you reach this opinion?

We can observe that more and more jobs have been cut in editorial departments in recent years. The newspaper Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, for example, dismissed 300 of its 800 journalists just over a year ago.

We see that journalists are being paid less and the compensation rules that had been agreed with the publishers aren't being adhered to; instead, journalists are fobbed with cheap fees. Young journalists are being paid less and less to start off with, so no good, skilled journalists are going to take the jobs.

The value of journalism will continue to decrease in the next few years. I fear the worse, actually - that journalism one day becomes something that anyone can just do on the side. That doesn't line up with press freedom in Germany, with quality reporting, or even with a functioning democracy.

Do you see the media organizations as the responsible party when you say that journalism is so important to a functioning democracy? Or are politics also responsible?

Of course politics are also responsible, because that's where the value of journalism hasn't yet been recognized. Politicians tend to get upset when journalists report critically on them. Their ability to take criticism has fallen in recent years. Journalists are often just seen as the bad guy and it's best when they can be convinced to write a positive report.

But of course the publishers - who interfere with the inner press freedom and make editorial demands - are also responsible.

There are a lot of issues that come together. But, ultimately, it's the politicians who are called upon to do something to ensure press freedom.

Interview: Aya Bach / kjb
Editor: Sean Sinico

Michael Konken
Konken says he is concerned about data issues and protecting sourcesImage: picture alliance/dpa