DW: Why is a free press so essential to liberal democracy?
Steffen Seibert: Without a free press neither liberal democracy nor free society can exist. The situation in Belarus shows us once again that people long for the truth and yearn to express their political will freely, without threat of persecution. A free press establishes reliable facts, asks the right questions of those in power and holds them to account. When the free press is stifled, society is robbed of the truth.
What is the most essential aspect of your job in terms of fostering an effective working relationship between the press and the government?
In our democracy, media outlets have the vital task of keeping the government in check. Government and journalists are not associates. Rather, we each contribute to the vitality of our shared democracy in our own separate way. The values expressed in our Basic Law provide the consensus meant to bind us together. As government spokesman, I feel it is my responsibility to support the free press — by contributing to good working conditions for journalists, providing truthful statements and transparently explaining what the government is doing.
One particular institution unique to Germany helps us do that: The Federal Press Conference (BPK). This institution provides a forum that allows journalists in the capital to regularly ask questions of the government. Importantly, it is the journalists themselves who set the agenda at the BPK. The government has no influence over it. The BPK has been a guarantor for independent and critical reporting since 1949. My only wish is that more journalists would take advantage of the opportunity to actively participate in it today.
'Putting the right questions to those in power'
Established media outlets have experienced increased demand as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Has that also been the case for the government's own online content?
Over the past few months, the pandemic has indeed spotlighted an enormous need for credible information coming from reliable sources — information of the kind we - among others – are providing. That fact is reflected in the volume of visitor traffic we are seeing at our websites, for example at www.bundesregierung.de or the website of the Federal Ministry of Health at www.bundesgesundheitsministerium.de, as well as on our social media sites. We feel that this interest obliges us to make our information as widely available as we can. For instance, we have greatly improved accessibility to information by introducing live sign-language interpretation at all of the chancellor's press conferences. And we have expanded our foreign language service to provide coronavirus information to people who may speak better Arabic or Turkish than German.
Populists use sensationalism as a tool for media manipulation. What can serious outlets do to fight that?
As a government spokesman I don't like to give advice to the press. That is neither appropriate nor necessary. Here in Germany, we have a wide array of trusted media outlets that report in an independent, balanced and thoughtful manner. I am very happy they have seen increased traffic over the past few months and that many people clearly realize just how invaluable they are. Good journalism will always be based on observing the truth: But it will also never overlook the fact that beyond reason, people have emotions — a good newspaper or TV news show speaks to both.
What is the German government doing to combat disinformation?
The pandemic has proven to be a hotbed for disinformation — whether that be abstruse conspiracy theories or actors who deny the virus poses a health threat: Disinformation is designed to undermine peoples' trust in government at every level.
Ultimately, there is really only one remedy: To explain government actions and articulate the reasons behind them to the broadest possible public in the clearest possible terms. That was something that led us to increase our social media activity this spring. We are providing a comprehensive list of FAQs online, and every segment of the population can find virus protection information relevant to their own lives on our websites. We have also intensified the dialogue with our Facebook Community in order to clear up misunderstandings or flag and correct inaccurate statements.
But it is also extremely important to make citizens aware of such issues in the first place. To help do so, we create for example posts that show people how they can recognize false reports. We also provide them with lists of reliable sources, which – by far – do not only include governmental sources.
Steffen Seibert has been press spokesman for the German government under Chancellor Angela Merkel since 2010. Prior to this he worked as a journalist for Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen (ZDF) the second public television service of Germany.
This interview was conducted by Martina Bertram.