Opinion: Seehofer never put German press freedom at risk | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 27.06.2020
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Opinion: Seehofer never put German press freedom at risk

Interior minster Seehofer's decision not to file a legal complaint against journalist Hengameh Yaghoobifarah is seen as a victory for press freedom. But it was never in jeopardy in the first place, says Zoran Arbutina.

Numerous journalists across Germany will presumably have raised a toast on Thursday, after German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer announced he would not take legal action against journalist Hengameh Yaghoobifarah after all.

In mid-June, Yaghoobifarah penned an opinion piece in the German left-wing alternative daily taz, in which she ruminated about what should happen to police officers if the force were abolished. She argued they should end up on the rubbish dump, though "not as bin men, with keys to other people's homes." Police officers, she concluded, "should be surrounded by garbage because that is the environment where they will feel most at home."

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Some have argued that Yaghoobifarah's piece was a satirical jab at the police. Many others have dismissed the article as asinine. Others still, like Germany's Horst Seehofer, viewed the author's piece as downright inhumane. In his characteristically uncouth style, he declared he would take legal action against Yaghoobifarah whose "reckless writing will inevitably lead to reckless actions and violence."

Deutschland Berlin Redaktionsgebäude der taz

The headquarters of taz, which published Yaghoobifarah's piece on the police.

Seehofer's words, in turn, sparked an outcry among many German media outlets — including DW — and lawmakers. They brandished his attack on Yaghoobifarah as an attack on German press freedom writ large. Some claimed Seehofer's move would put Germany on par with countries like Turkey, Poland, Hungary, Russia, Iran, China and the Philippines, none of whom have particularly good track records when it comes to press freedom.

After twice postponing his announced move, a "confidential talk" with Chancellor Angela Merkel, and ample time to reflect on the situation, Seehofer abandoned his plan. Such flip-flopping, too, is typical of the Bavarian lawmaker. Instead, he now wants to meet taz editor-in-chief Barbara Junge to discuss the affair.

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German press freedom was never in jeopardy

Some subsequently rejoiced that Seehofer's backtracking means German press freedom was successfully defended. But, let's be honest here: it was never in jeopardy in the first place.

Germany adheres to the rule of law. When a minister launches legal action against a journalist, this does not mean the author will end up in court. So far, Berlin's public prosecutor has received 25 complaints about Yaghoobifarah's opinion piece. Over 300 complaints have been filed with the German Press Council, the country's voluntary self-regulation body. So even though Seehofer's proposed complaint attracted broad media attention, it would not have carried greater legal significance than any other. While Yaghoobifarah's piece provoked numerous complaints, it is unclear whether a court case will follow. And even if it does, the outcome would remain entirely open — in contrast to countries like Turkey or Russia, which do not respect the rule of law with regards to press freedom.

Journalists enjoy robust rights in this country, similar to judges. Their independence is protected by law. No German court would feel obliged to sentence a journalist just because a German minster filed a legal complaint against said person. Especially so when the case has been as thoroughly politicized as this one.

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Freedom of the press in times of corona

Previous court cases also suggest that German judges value and protect press freedom. Incidentally, most journalists do not lead precarious existences. Their relative material wealth strengthens their independence. So any suggestion that Seehofer's mere announcement to take legal action constituted an act of intimidation implies many have lost faith in the resilience of German media.

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In short: German press freedom was never at stake. Not even if Seehofer had gone through with his plan to file a legal complaint against the taz author.

Comparing this affair to developments in countries like Turkey, Russia, Hungary or Iran, meanwhile, is nothing short of hysterical. Besides, doing so makes light of the fact these countries really do stifle press freedom.

Journalists in these countries are intimidated, imprisoned, harassed, banned from working and even killed. This means not only is press freedom under attack in these countries, but lives are at stake as well — sometimes journalists really do end up in garbage dumps. Which certainly isn't a joke.