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Press freedom vs. security

Kersten Knipp / gro
April 20, 2016

Germany fell four places in the newly released Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. There are various reasons for this, and some of them lie with parts of civil society.

Reporter without borders

Pitchforks were a topic. Tatjana Festerling, spokeswoman for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (PEGIDA), recommended that followers of her movement pick up pitchforks and beat "the discriminatory elites, the elites betraying the people" out of their press headquarters. She also considered it appropriate to speak of "distorters of truth from the liar-press" and "Merkel's Ministry of Truth," referring to Nazi press practices under Hitler's regime.

The words may indeed have encouraged some PEGIDA members to attack journalists, as reporters were certainly accosted at the group's gatherings. The nongovernmental organization Reporters Without Borders recorded at least 39 attacks in 2015, "mostly at demonstrations of the PEGIDA movement and its regional subsidiaries, at rallies of right-wing groups or counterdemonstrations." This information is stated in the 2016 World Press Freedom Index

Incidents such as these have contributed considerably to Germany's noticeable ranking drop of four notches, from 12th place in 2014 to 16th place the following year. "We have observed that the mood of the population towards journalists has become much more aggressive than in previous years," said Ulrike Gruska, a spokeswoman for Reporters Without Borders. Participants of PEGIDA and AfD demonstrations, as well as counterdemonstrators have taken to the hostile slogans, gotten carried away and attacked journalists.

Tatjana Festerling
With pitchforks against the liar press: Tatjana FesterlingImage: AFP/Getty Images/J. Schlueter

The aggression toward journalists as seen in some of the population is linked to a general political development in Germany, Gruska said. "Overall, there is great uncertainty in the population, which was triggered by domestic political developments and the refugee crisis," she added. "For many, this has led to much dissatisfaction with politics and the media."

Gruska said society would suffer if journalists could only venture out accompanied by bodyguards. "Free media are an essential cornerstone of a democratic system,"

Accusations of treason

Government institutions have also hindered the press in Germany in the past year. Reporters Without Borders assessed the federal prosecution of the political online paper Netzpolitik.org as particularly alarming. The website had previously reported on the secret expansion of Internet surveillance by Germany's domestic intelligence service, the Verfassungsschutz. "That was not just one of many lawsuits against journalists," Gruska said. "In fact, for the first time in 30 years, the Federal Prosecutor opened investigations on journalists for treason. This has happened three times in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany. That is when the bells started ringing for many people."

But pressure on the media is not only coming from the outside. The media have partly undermined their own independence and the diversity of their offering. For example, large editorial teams from major regional publishers merge and then begin delivering identical content to various customers, "resulting in press diversity that only exists in headlines and layout but not in the content and orientation of the newspapers in a region," according to the press index.

Markus Beckedahl and Andre Meister Netzpolitik.org
In the cross hairs of federal prosecutors: reporters for the online newspaper netzpolitik.orgImage: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Pedersen

Reporters Without Borders is also worried about the increasingly blurred lines between staff-written and sponsored content. "There is a rise in experimentation with forms, which readers or listeners cannot clearly recognize as independent editorial content or advertising that has been paid for by a company," according to the group.

Press freedom deteriorated across Europe in 2015. In several countries, laws for terrorism and spying have been misused to limit civil liberties and laws for mass digital surveillance have been adopted. Public and private media have come under growing pressure.

This is all the more worrying as European media have thus far always played a global leadership goal, Ulrike Gruska said: "If these trends exist in European countries that have always been a good role model, then it is problematic."

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