By Isidora Hernández & Danai Konstantopoulou
Violence and crimes linked to right-wing ideology in Germany have peaked in the last two years as presented last May in a press release by the Minister of Interior, Horst Seehofer. He mentioned that “right-wing extremism remains the biggest threat to security in Germany”. This situation has caused problems not only in the political scene of Germany but also in the media, in which 260 criminal incidents against journalists were reported since 2019.
The reestablishment of the right
Paul Eschenhagen, Deputy Press Officer of the German Federation of Journalists (DJV), connects the noticeably rise of right-wing extremism to movements against refugees (such as “PEGIDA”), which have gained popularity since 2015. The populist movement “PEGIDA”, which means “Patriotic Europeans against Islamisation of the West” (Patriotische Europär gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes), gradually got a lot of support from people who were in favour of keeping refugees outside Germany. This movement, explains Martin Hoffmann, journalist and vice-chairman of European Institute of Journalism and Communication Research (EIJC), considers the media as “Lügenpresse”, which translates into “lying press”.
Eschenhagen adds that “with the corona pandemic this situation became worse, with attacks and threats to journalists mostly from right-wing extremists and the so-called “Querdenker”, which loosely translates as “lateral thinkers” with the members being people who oppose the government’s actions against coronavirus. Most of those Querdenker or “Coronaleugner” (corona deniers) come from the middle of society, not from the right. They don’t trust in information from the established media anymore, but use mostly alternative media and chat tools like “Telegram” to spread conspiracy theories”.
2020: the highest number of politically motivated crimes
In May 2021, the Federal Ministry of Interior, Building and Community in Germany published a press release citing that in 2020 there was a “considerably increase of politically motivated crime”.
Marek Wede, spokesman of the Ministry of Interior, stressed that “the Federal Ministry of the Interior, for Building and Community condemns all forms of extremism”. Why was there a significant increase in these types of crimes? According to the Ministry of Interior, around 3,569 reports of politically motivated crimes included the term “coronavirus”, 478 of them correspond to violent attacks perpetrated in events or demonstrations organized by people against the COVID-19 restrictions. As mentioned above, the “Querdenker” movement sometimes includes right-wing ideology supporters. This results in attacks and threats to media workers, such as journalists (freelance or not) and camera crews. During the last year, about 260 crimes of violence against journalists were reported and 112 of them were linked to the pandemic deniers and COVID-19.
Journalists as a target
The lack of trust in the media has made journalists a popular target among extremists in Germany. According to journalist (and vice-chairman of the EIJC) Martin Hoffmann, “demonstrations are the most dangerous working place for journalists since the “lying press” claim got public” because there is a stigma among pandemic deniers and right-wing sympathizers that the media – along with the government – frame reality in a way that is not aligned with right-wing values.
The “lateral thinkers” normally object to the framing of the media regarding controversial topics such as migration, climate change and COVID-19. “This way they reach a lot of people, which are not in favour of the government and believe that the press is left-wing or biased” explains Hoffmann. In the opinion of Paul Eschenhagen “journalists are always challenging conspiracy theories and simple answers to complex problems. That is why the propagators of conspiracy theories and “alternative facts” brand them as opponents to be fought”. This is a common belief among extremists, that journalists don’t report reality, but instead they promote the government’s agenda.
From a Journalist’s perspective
Julius Geiler is a German reporter and author of “Der Tagesspiegel” with a focus on right-wing extremism and anti-semitism, He has also covered “Querdenker” demonstrations. Geiler explains that “many people believe in conspiracy theories, that mainstream media and the government is one thing and that we are working together”. He says that this is a repeated comment when he interviews demonstrators, “they think that I receive calls from our government every day” he adds. It’s because of the skepticism in mainstream media, that “lateral thinkers” migrate to social media to spread their ideas, explains the journalist. He also mentions that Facebook, Twitter and Telegram are very popular platforms to attack reporters. Within one year, Geiler has received around ten serious threats because of his work; he has stopped reporting them to the police since “there’s no chance to find the people behind those threats”.
He also believes that some threats are more dangerous than others, he can identify when a person attacking him is just bored or if they really meant the threat. Geiler remembers an episode when some attacker posted online his private number and address just around Christmas time, and he and his family began to receive death threats. “I called the police and then the guy who posted this message on Telegram deleted the message after 30 minutes. “I think because he was suddenly afraid,” he states.
But not all of the attacks stay on social media, most of the violent ones happen in demonstrations. Julius Geiler says that big reporter crews draw more attention from the protesters. “I have the privilege that I’m not reporting with a big camera crew around me,” says Geiler, who believes that being discreet might be the safest way to cover these events. “I’m alone. I’m just using my smartphone to take pictures and videos, after the protest I start to write about it” explains Geiler about his work method.
He doesn’t try to blend with the protestors, but he also thinks that people don’t recognize him because he looks like every other demonstrator. But when they do, he is usually the target of rocks and bottles. Sometimes people push him and start physical altercations. “Most of the time the police came and took me out of the mass and out of the circle of protesters around me,” he replies.
“They are trying to stop us, their goal is to stop our journalists from reporting these events and to establish the so-called alternative media,” affirms Geiler, who also believes that the demonstrators don’t see the mainstream media as a platform because they don’t trust them. The journalist also recognizes that serious media in Germany wouldn’t give them a platform because of limits between a controversial opinion and just denying basic facts or human rights.
Why target the journalists?
Political scientist and professor Roger Buch gives a possible explanation on why extremists target journalists. “I think mainstream media in Germany are basically democratic media, so they are critical to groups that are anti-democratic and that means that if you are on the extreme right-wing or extreme left-wing, you very often have ideas about changing the system, the society and the democracy,” he says.
He continues that “they are angry at society, they think we have a perverted society, a wrong system. That’s why they want to change it.” Buch says that attacks towards journalists might be common because they are perceived as part of the problem or “the enemy”. He adds that to pass their message (=extremists) they organize demonstrations, which might result in destruction of public and private property or organized attacks on minorities. This will contribute to the negative and critical media coverage of these events. “I think that’s one of the main reasons why journalists are targeted,” he concludes.
A big dilemma
Professor Buch asks: “Why cover this?”. According to him “by covering the extremists’ demonstrations, we’re helping them to get their message out”. And by covering these events, we draw attention to them, which will result in them gaining popularity and support. This raises another question for him: “Is it worth covering this?”. Buch also believes that it depends on the media’s news agenda, “some media will think it’s important to cover these events and that could be fine” but if it’s not part of the agenda, for the above and safety reasons his advice would be “to stay away”. “They do deserve a platform in the media. But not every demonstration they organize” he concludes.
Journalist Julius Geiler has a different opinion. “It’s our task. We can’t just ignore events because we don’t like the party’s background, or the movement behind. This is not how journalism works,” he states and says that he believes that those protests belong to Germany. “Those movements belong to our country, unfortunately. But it’s part of our country and German citizens are joining those movements,” he concludes and adds that as journalists they have to pay attention to what is happening because it “can become increasingly dangerous”.
German journalism and communication student, Severin Pehlke, from Hamburg University, weighs in this dilemma as well, asking “to what extent you are giving people too much attention if you report about it”. He then adds that “if you don’t report it at all, it can also be a way of censorship”, and this fits the narrative promoted by extremists: “the elitist media, who are against us”.
Anastasia Klimovskaya, Russian journalism and communication student in Hamburg University, feels that “it’s a huge mistake to not cover these events, just because you don’t want to give these people their voices”. She believes that even if journalists don’t report these people’s acts, they’re still talking about these people in a negative way indirectly, drawing more attention to them, which benefits them and their popularity. “It is inevitable”.
The official report
According to Paul Eschenhagen, the German Federation of Journalists (DJV) is aware of these attacks against journalists. “We see both physical and verbal attacks and threats. We regularly screen social networks, we are in contact with our members, with the police and politicians, and some of our colleagues are present at demonstrations as observers and support for journalists,” says Eschenhagen.
The spokesperson of the Ministry, Marek Wede, supports the previous statement saying that “the Federal Minister of the Interior, for Building and Community Mr. Seehofer condemns all forms of violence against journalists. The federal and local authorities will ensure that journalists can safely pursue their important work. In Germany, we specifically record statistics on politically motivated crime. This includes statistics on attacks targeting the media.”
In the current political climate in Germany, there are two parties that leave no one indifferent: Alliance 90/The Greens (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen), a centre-left party gradually gaining a lot of support from the public, and Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland, AfD), a right-wing populist party which is the 3rd most popular party in Germany, slowly losing support.
We contacted Ms. Monika Lazar of the Green party. She is the spokesperson for strategies against right-wing extremism for the Greens in the German parliament. We didn’t receive any comment on this issue.
Ronald Gläser, the spokesperson of Alternative for Germany, says that the AfD condemns all attacks against journalists. He adds: “I am a journalist myself, and I therefore look closely at those incidents. If someone from the “Querdenker” or “PEGIDA” or whatever demonstration from the right-wing ideology goes after journalists, they should be punished.” However, he believes that these incidents are extremely exaggerated. “Someone shouting “Lügenpresse” (=lying press) is after all not as big of a danger to freedom of the press, violence is an exception,” says Gläser. The spokesperson also acknowledges some attacks against journalists perpetrated by left wing extremists, which in his words “are rarely reported”. He concludes that for the AfD “freedom of press and expression is essential. Therefore, the media must be able to report freely”.
What is the next step?
One important contribution when dealing with this issue, professor Buch believes, is to include subjects or seminars in journalism schools’ curriculum focusing on the safety of journalists. He explains that “it’s very important that we actually teach this to students”. In that way they will be able to best protect themselves and their work.
Martin Hoffmann stresses that the protection of journalists and dealing with the violence “it’s not much of a priority to the government”. In a lot of cases reporters and camera teams covering protests don’t always feel protected by the police. On this issue, Hoffmann proposes “a better education for police officers in order to protect journalists and their rights”.
According to Julius Geiler, journalist, there are a lot of talks and conferences between journalists, journalism unions, politicians and the police regarding this issue. “This is very important, especially in cities where the popularity of right-wing and conspiracy theory movements have escalated in the last year,” says Geiler stating also that it is in those cities where a lot of journalists get attacked, because the police didn’t protect them in a proper way. “In those cities the union started to cooperate with the police, and there are often talks and discussions between those different police and unions” reflects the journalist, adding that he can see the difference: “Suddenly the police started to establish an area only for journalists, so journalists had the chance to come in the middle of a protest, but they were protected,” he concludes. Eschenhagen from the Journalists’ Union in Germany refers to the ways the Union wants to tackle this: “The problem with the attacks on journalists has become one of our top priorities in the last and present year. We provide consulting and support for our members, also legal advice, we are in close contact with the police, and we are working on different layers with politicians and the government, local and nationwide.”