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'You have hate mail'

Uta Steinwehr
December 16, 2016

Top German politicians have long been the target of online threats, but now they are not alone. Hate is rife on the local level, too. Some politicians resign out of concern for their families' safety. Others fight on.

Deutschland Kundgebung Pegida in Dresden
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

March 2015: Markus Nierth, the independent mayor of Tröglitz (Saxony-Anhalt), advocates taking in refugees. He receives death threats for the proposal. He then resigns after the district grants the far-right nationalist NPD (National Democratic Party) permission to lead a demonstration march passing directly in front of his home. One month later, a fire burns down a building designated to house 40 refugees. Even after his resignation, Nierth continues to receive threats and packages containing human feces.

Fall/Winter 2015: A retiree writes to Stefanie von Berg, Hamburg's Green Party citizens' representative, calling her mentally ill and stating that he hopes she will be raped. In July, he was given a 3,000 euro ($3,100) fine for the threats. During his trial, the accused says that his threats, "weren't addressed to a person or a woman, but a politician."

September 2016: In Oersdorf, near Hamburg, Mayor Joachim Kebschull (independent) is bludgeoned with a wooden club. Prior to the attack, he receives bomb threats and is the target of racial insults. Kebschull, too, wants to take in refugees. Police emphasize the fact that they are following every possible lead.     

December 2016: For more than two months, Thomas Purwin, the head of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) in Bocholt, is continually insulted and threatened on Facebook: "The messages were full of personal defamations and death threats, all revolving around the subject of refugee policy. The accusation was always that we were doing too much for refugees and not enough for Germans." Other politicians in Bocholt receive mail with xenophobic content as well. On Tuesday, Purwin resigns because his girlfriend and his young daughter have also been threatened.

Brandanschlag in Tröglitz
Refugee housing Tröglitz was the site of an arson attack following Markus Nierth's resignationImage: picture-alliance/dpa/J.Woitas

The news of Purwin's resignation led other politicians to voice their disgust with this growing development. "Some people think that they can write whatever they want online, and they see nothing wrong with it," said North Rhine-Westphalian State Premier Hannelore Kraft (SPD) in a recent interview with Radio NRW. "But the internet is not a place that is beyond the rule of law. Quite the opposite: threats are threats, and they will be prosecuted." Kraft lodges criminal complaints for every hate mail she receives.

Public eye makes you vulnerable

Rejection, or even hate, directed at so-called state functionaries has been growing for years, says professor Oliver Zöllner, who heads the Institute for Digital Ethics at the Stuttgart Media University. "It starts with firemen and police being hindered or attacked on the street, and ends with more or less prominent politicians that are regularly the focus of public attention."

Zöllner says that there is a lack of awareness about what is right or wrong, and that accepted rules of decency have deteriorated. He thinks that has to do with the new image of man that has spread in the age of the internet: "Individuals perceive themselves as being part of a mass of like-minded people, and from within the safety of that perceived group they attack individual politicians whom they see as a projection surface." The internet has made it easier to spread one's own hate and opinions.

Politicians are people, too

Michael Terhaag, a Düsseldorf-based lawyer specializing in IT law, says those who dish out opinions in public forums or election campaigns must also accept criticism. "But behind their public role, politicians have human and privacy rights like everyone else." The same rights are afforded to politicians and everyday citizens, says the lawyer. "Wishing death to someone, insulting children or making false claims" is unlawful in both cases. 

If messages are received from a sender using his or her real name, the injured party can take action, explains Terhaag: By lodging a criminal complaint for insult or libel, for instance. Such action is more difficult if a message comes from an anonymous sender. But the forum itself can be challenged. "Forum operators such as Facebook are not responsible if they are not aware of the problem." As soon as they are notified, they are obliged to act within a reasonable period of time.

Heiko Maas
Some 46 percent of hate postings on Facebook are deleted - Justice Minister Maas doesn't think that's enoughImage: Getty Images/AFP/J. Macdougall

Federal Justice Minister Heiko Maas (SPD) has proposed taking legal steps against operators next year if they do not remove hate messages from their platforms. Zöllner, too, thinks that Facebook needs to invest much more effort into the problem and that the company should be taken to task for inaction. "More than 40 percent of Americans get all of their news via Facebook. It has become a de facto news organization." Therefore, it has an obligation to act like a company with an editorial board. Thus far, Facebook has refused to take such steps, claiming that it is simply a technology company.

Lawyer Terhaag doesn't think the existing legal framework in Germany is all that bad. Pointing out that there are a number of rules regulating defense against hateful content. "In Germany, you can already sue Facebook." It would be easier, however, if foreign providers were required to have a German service address. Currently, a complaint has to be translated; that costs money and is an impediment.

Not giving in despite massive threats

Jürgen Kasek, Saxony's Green Party state speaker, has had rather meager success when it comes to filing criminal complaints. "When it comes to anonymous online accounts, police are quick to say that they cannot determine the identity of the perpetrator." Very few people have had criminal charges brought against them.

Countering right-wing extremism

Kasek has taken action against the anti-immigrant Pegida movement and rightwing extremism. Kasek is a part-time politician, and a full-time lawyer. He has been the object of hate for months, if not years. In the beginning, he just received online threats. Kasek says that the volume has continued to grow, and the threats have become more direct. Occasionally, they go beyond the verbal. In November, he was attacked while riding the train. He says that his office has been graffitied, and that he has received letters containing personal information about himself. "That is pretty alarming." He has gone on the offensive and published photos of the texts.

The hate mail comes in waves, via e-mail or Facebook. There are several dozen every day, "and those are just the ones that we filter out." Kasek says he lodged 300 complaints after the last wave of attacks.

Invasion of privacy

He has become more cautious. "I don't necessarily say where I am going to be at a given time anymore, or where I am traveling. When I am alone in cities where I don't know my way around, I usually take a hat that I can hide my face with." People close to me know where I am at all times, Kasek added.  

The politician says giving up is not an option. That would only mean that the others had won, he says. "I have a vision of a free society in which people show one another mutual respect. I don't want to wake up one day and realize that my freedom has been taken away from me." That is what motivates him. Nevertheless, Kasek still thinks about those who could face danger just because they are close to him.