Blind Spots: How self-censorship impacts local journalism in Germany

ECPMF

09 July 2024

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Article by Patrick Peltz, Monitoring and Research Officer at ECPMF and author of the annual “Feindbild Journalist:in” study.

 

The following text has already appeared in slightly modified form in the journal epd Medien and can be downloaded here

Attacks on journalists in Germany have been on the rise for years. According to the latest study published in April by the European Centre for Press Freedom and Freedom of Expression (ECPMF) in Leipzig, there were 69 verified cases of physical attacks on media professionals in 2023, 13 more than in 2022. According to the study, threats against and attacks on local journalists lead to self-censorship. Some topics are no longer covered by editorial offices in Saxony. Strong gains by the far right in local elections in eastern Germany, and expected gains in the upcoming state elections in the autumn, pose a major challenge to press freedom. Patrick Peltz, who has been leading the “Feindbild Journalist:in” study since November 2023, describes the climate of intimidation and how it affects reporting.

 

Journalists who live and work in rural areas or small and medium-sized towns are close to the subjects and issues they cover. For many, this is the appeal of their work. Local and regional newspapers are still the main source of local news and politics for most people. The local section is one of the most widely read sections, and research shows that local newspapers enjoy a high level of trust among readers. Local journalism plays an important role in political education, civic engagement and voter activation. In short, it is essential for democracy.

 

However, the attractiveness of the profession is suffering greatly. One of the main reasons for this is the growing hostility towards journalists. Ten years ago, the word “Lügenpresse” was brought back into the limelight by the “Pegida” movement to incite hatred against the media. The term was already a central element of German propaganda during the First World War, and later played an important role in the rhetoric of the National Socialists.

 

Hostility towards the media

Today, the term is almost emblematic of a new aggressiveness in the treatment of journalists in the current era. The growing hatred of the press has changed the image of the profession and affects press freedom. Journalists told the ECPMF that they avoid reporting in places where they expect hostility or even physical violence. Some spoke of self-censorship.

 

Anti-media attitudes can be observed in various milieus and protest structures, such as the so-called Monday demonstrations in Saxony and Thuringia. These demonstrations are attended by members of the AfD, which incites hostility towards the media at all political levels, and the extreme right-wing party “Freie Sachsen” (Free Saxons), as well as people carrying Russian and peace flags. At the same time, people who have joined together in citizens’ initiatives and who are either actively networked with, or at least tolerate, extreme right-wing and conspiracy ideology groups are taking part. Right-wing slogans and symbols and conspiratorial narratives, including fantasies of murder and the overthrow of the state – for example, in the form of gallows for politicians – are just as present as portrait photos of journalists defamed as liars.

 

In view of the open hostility towards the media, which is not limited to East Germany, it is not surprising that there are repeated attacks on journalists in the vicinity of these demonstrations. These attacks are not only carried out by organised right-wing extremists or members of the right-wing hooligan scene. People from middle-class backgrounds who are open to authoritarian attitudes also attack journalists in the vicinity of such rallies. The “media” and journalists, perceived as the enemy, are a unifying ideological element of these actors and movements. Verbal and physical violence against media professionals is seen as legitimate and breaks out in protests where those involved regard themselves as part of a powerful group.

 

Not surprisingly, journalists feel threatened by such scenarios. Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, there have been significantly more physical attacks on media workers in Germany than before. According to ECPMF studies, between 2015 and 2019 there were an average of about 23 attacks per year. This number increased to an average of 69 attacks per year between 2020 and 2023. Even after the official end of the pandemic, the number of attacks has remained high.

 

Over the past year, journalists have been spat at, pushed, punched and had stones thrown at them while covering events, mostly around demonstrations. Others have been slowed down at high speed on the motorway in an attempt to lose control of their vehicles. One journalist found screws in all the tyres of his car. Journalists’ homes were vandalised on several occasions.

 

Other forms of abuse are also faced by journalists. Many report that verbal abuse and threats have become part of their daily work. Those who research and report outside the newsroom are particularly vulnerable, especially at far-right and conspiracy ideology demonstrations. They are more likely to be physically attacked than media professionals who work mainly in offices.

 

They know who you are

Journalists who write about socially controversial issues are more likely to be targets of hate speech than those who cover less polarising topics. Specialist journalists covering movements where hostility towards the media is a central part of the political ideology are more likely to be targeted by these groups than reporters covering the economy.

 

Then there is the factor of proximity. While foreign journalists who come to a place to report leave it again, local journalists usually live in the area they cover. They are public figures and can be identified at any time. Andrea Schawe, former deputy local editor of the Sächsische Zeitung in Freital, told the ECPMF: “In the local area, journalists have the problem that people know who you are, where the editorial office is and what you look like. As soon as you go out on the street for work or privately, you are in contact with your readers”. Therefore, it is almost impossible to retreat into local anonymity, and that comes with consequences.

 

Affected journalists deal with attacks and threats in different ways. While it is understandable that media companies almost reflexively say that they will not be intimidated, this is exactly what happens. Especially where the extreme right dominates the space. When extreme right-wing actors also cooperate with conspiracy ideology movements and are accepted by large sections of urban society, this creates a permanent threat situation for anyone who critically engages with them, be it civil society groups, local politicians or local journalists.

 

“Right spaces”

In a contribution to the anthology “Lokal extrem Rechts: Analysen alltäglicher Vergesellschaftung”, researchers Axel Salheiser and Matthias Quent describe the emergence of socially integrated right-wing extremist groups as follows: “They shape the social and political climate of opinion in the social space with their nationalist, racist and anti-liberal attitudes and everyday practices – so that entire communities, cities or even regions are considered ‘right-wing spaces’ in which this is perceived as ‘normal’.”

 

Two long-standing local journalists who live and report in such places in Saxony described their situation and observations to the ECPMF. In addition to reporting on other issues, both consider it important to deal with and provide information about the extreme right-wing and conspiracy ideology actors in the reporting area. It is important to reveal how they network locally and nationally and who these people really are, even when they pretend to be harmless. At the same time, this exposes them to considerable risk.

 

A local journalist explains: “The right-wing extremists operating in the region and far beyond have long noticed me as a media professional. And they know and inform each other. My reporting exposes me in a way that, in my view, already harbors such a potential for danger that the idea of withdrawing from reporting is at least obvious.”

 

Articles by local journalists are attacked in chat groups, and there have already been libel suits and an attack on a newspaper office. This is not without consequences. Both local journalists report that they have noticed that the issues of right-wing extremism and right-wing ideology are often ignored or no longer critically examined in local publications. Some local newspapers in their region no longer cover them at all.

 

There is no longer any reporting

“These issues are often avoided in editorial offices. I’m noticing more and more, even here where I work, that colleagues don’t touch it,” said one of the two. A colleague in his newsroom had already been the victim of vandalism, and he suspected that the perpetrators were from the right-wing scene. This colleague had decided at the time not to cover the issue anymore, in effect censoring himself. He knows other colleagues who feel the same way. Sometimes it is not said explicitly, but it is noticeable when topics are left out. He also reads other local newspapers from the region and noticed that, especially in places where extreme right-wing movements are very active and present, “they are not really covered at all”.

 

These stories are alarming. When local journalists explain that they or their colleagues censor themselves out of concern for their safety, there can be no claim to press freedom in these places. Journalists from other places have also told ECPMF researchers that they sometimes refrain from reporting from certain places because they feel the risk of being attacked is too great.

 

Freelance journalists in particular, who have been disproportionately affected by physical attacks over the past year, are reluctant to report in dangerous places because, without an employer to back them up, they face the consequences of an attack on their own. If they are physically or psychologically injured or their equipment destroyed, their livelihoods can be threatened.

 

This can result in blind spots in reporting. In several places, right-wing extremists are running as candidates in elections, for example at city or district level. The local journalists interviewed report that a critical examination of these people, their views and their backgrounds rarely takes place. Networking between actors and movements is also less frequently reported. Right-wing extremists, on the other hand, learn from this that they can prevent unwanted coverage by intimidating and attacking external and local journalists and take up more space.

 

Just the tip of the iceberg

At the time of the interviews, the journalists feared that right-wing extremists would stand in many places in the local elections in Saxony in June. The local journalists assumed that some of them would be elected to local councils in their communities. Their fears were confirmed. The far-right party ‘Freie Sachsen’ (Free Saxony), which had called for a ‘storming of the town halls’ before the elections, managed to get into all the district councils. Furthermore, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which has been classified by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution in Saxony as an extreme right-wing party, dominated the local elections at district council level. In the municipalities, the picture is more varied, but still rather bleak. The AfD is likely to emerge as the strongest force in the upcoming state elections in autumn.

 

The journalists interviewed fear that their newly legitimised democratic position will give them more power and prestige, even among people who did not know them before. As a result, they fear, defamation and attacks on journalists will increase.

 

According to the journalists, the more visible assaults are only the tip of the iceberg. “But the things we experience are things that actually take place under the covers. Nobody really notices,” explains one of the two local journalists.

 

It is difficult to detect the long-term effects of such a threatening situation. Phenomena such as changes in reporting or self-censorship for fear of hostility are difficult to observe. It seems plausible that journalists are reluctant to talk about this publicly because it does not fit with their professional ethos. It was important to the local journalists quoted that they not be named. Not only for safety reasons, but also because of their employers.

 

Creeping fear

The editor-in-chief of the Ostthüringer Zeitung, Nils Kawig, said after repeated attacks on one of his reporters last year: “At the moment I still assume that the colleagues who have been attacked so far will not be intimidated. But our concern is that this will create a creeping fear among the workforce”. That is why the company contacted the police authorities after the attacks and asked for intensive advice. “We want to prevent this kind of creeping fear. A fear that no one wants to talk about. We want to show internally, within the workforce, but also externally, that we won’t be intimidated,” says the editor-in-chief.

 

Some news organisations now offer security training for staff. Finally, other low-threshold services are important to encourage staff to voice their concerns so that editorial teams can work with them to find a way to deal with the increased threat level.

This text has already appeared in slightly modified form in the journal epd Medien and can be downloaded here: https://medien.epd.de/article/1326

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