No change in sight for German media ethics | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 10.03.2016
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No change in sight for German media ethics

Should the nationality of culprits be disclosed in reports about criminal offenses? The thefts and sexual attacks in Cologne at New Year have brought the issue to the attention of the German Press Council once again.

Everything remains as it was. This was the announcement made by the German Press Council on Wednesday following their deliberations. The panel of experts decided by a large majority that the German media should in most cases withhold information regarding the ethnic origin or religion of offenders.

The current guideline which has existed in the collection of ground rules for journalistic ethics, laid out by the German Press Council in 1973, advises that there must be a "reasonable remuneration" to the offense in order for journalists to mention the religion or ethnicity of an offender or alleged offender in media reports. The document notes that "such a reference could fuel prejudices against minorities."

The German Press Council is the self-regulatory body of Germany's printed media. The professional association of publishers and journalists regards itself as the guardian of freedom of the press and journalistic ethics. The "Manual" of the Council referred to as the "Pressekodex" or Press Code includes 16 paragraphs describing the required standards across German print media, from the separation of advertising and editorial to the protection of privacy.

Press Council: Neither censorship nor muzzle for journalists

Following Wednesday's decision, the chairman of the German Press Council Lutz Tillmanns flatly rejected any accusations of media censorship.

"The Council has agreed that the guidelines do not constitute a speech ban or a muzzle for the media," Tillmanns told the German Press Agency (DPA), stressing that editors are "autonomous in their decisions over when to disclose the nationality of alleged criminals and when not."

German Press Council Chairman Lutz Tillmanns

German Press Council Chairman Lutz Tillmanns

"At the same time, however, we recognize that there is still uncertainty about the application of the basic rule across editorial departments," Tillmanns said, adding that journalists will be provided with assistance in the shape of a guide to interpreting the rule, which will be made available to editors.

Even before Wednesday's decision, Tillmanns had stressed that the "Pressekodex" was an "obligation in professional ethics and not an instruction," insisting that guideline approves in the correct circumstance of publishing information regarding the ethnicity or religion of criminal offenders.

"But if an eight-line piece about a criminal offense focuses on Egyptian asylum seekers, in our minds, that's discriminatory," Tillmanns said.

Suspected 'lying press'

In many newsrooms the guidelines remain controversial, with criticism increasing drastically following the coverage of the numerous offenses at Cologne's New Year's Eve celebrations. Most reports made reference to witnesses seeing men who "appeared" to be of North African origin, without clearly specifying the suspects' ethnicity.

The lack of concrete descriptions added fuel to the fire for the slogan "Lügenpresse" - meaning "lying press" - which has seen an increase of usage following the growth of the right-leaning "PEGIDA" movement. Rooted in the accusation is the suspicion that the ethnic origin of suspects was not mentioned due to collusion between the German government, police and the media to suppress such information, Tillmans said.

Ambiguous decision

Even now, the reconfirmed guidelines leave much leeway and there is no clear answer as to whether or not the ethnicity of religion of an alleged perpetrator should be disclosed. Ahead of Wednesday's meeting, the Press Council had discussed whether the guidelines should be supplemented with a list of examples that make the circumstances of a "reasonable remuneration" clear.

Cologne central train station

The offenses in Cologne at New Year reignited the debate

Chief editor of German paper "Bild," Tanit Koch, said the decision to publish the nationality or religion of a criminal offender was always individual to the editor. She argued, however, that the guideline "inadmissibly restricts journalists and patronizes the readers."

"The application of the guideline fuels the mistrust of journalistic work," Koch said, adding that people will notice if you withhold relevant information.

Editor of the "Sächsische Zeitung" paper and participant on the Press Council, Uwe Vetterick, emphasized that, in future, the Saxony-based publication would consistently print the nationality of a suspect or offender, regardless of whether they're German or foreign.

Vetterick claimed that the results of a representative survey found that readers were more likely to assume that an offender was an asylum seeker if there was no mention of their nationality in media coverage.

In response to Wednesday's decision, the Federal Association of German Newspaper Publishers (BDVZ), pleaded for a review of the guideline for everyday use. The association argues that due to the rapid nature of social media, information regarding the origin and age of offenders are often already available from a third party.

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