‘Groping black hand’ picture sparks press freedom debate

by Jane Whyatt
Two German newspapers are accused of racist and sexist imagery. One has apologised. It follows a large number sex assaults by Middle Eastern asylum-seekers on local women at Cologne station on New Year’s Eve. At least two journalists covering protest events against the asylum policy of German Government have been attacked within a week in Cologne and in Leipzig. This is the latest skirmish in the ongoing war of words, with anti-Muslim groups like Pegida attacking the media as ‘liars’, as revealed in ECPMF’s 2015 research www.ecpmf/news/ecpmf/pegida and www.ecpmf/news/ecpmf/Leipzig1212  

German Papers Süddeutsche Zeitung and Focus two German newspapers are accused of racist and sexist imagery (screenshot Sueddeutsche/Facebook; Focus; ECPMF)

The Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) front page graphic showed a black male hand groping between the legs of a white woman. SZ has apologised after a storm of protest in social media, explaining on Twitter that the picture "had the opposite effect of the one that was intended".

Focus, a weekly magazine, is unapologetic. Its front page photo shows a naked white woman covered in black handprints, with the headline: "After the sex attacks by migrants, are we tolerant or blind?" But in contrast to Süddeutsche Zeitung the magazine did not see any reason to apologize: Editor in chief Ulrich Reitz can't understand the resentment and called them "ridiculous" and coming from "people, who had no idea about the illustration of magazines", he said to the Tagesspiegel later.

And anti-immigration protestors have been quick to adopt the controversial images.  A version of the  'groping black hand' between the legs of a photo of vice chancellor Angela Merkel appeared at the first anniversary march of Legida, the Leipzig branch of the anti-Islam Pegida movement, The caricature appears alongside a picture of Hungary’s President Orban, with the word for "thanks" in Hungarian, a reference to his tough anti-immigration policy and statements about "defending Europe’s Christians."

ECPMF reporters also saw shoes impaled on sticks and waved aloft – intended as an insult to all Muslims. Home-made placards hijacked the ubiquitous ‘Refugees Welcome’ sign – a common sight in all German cities. They turned it into ‘Rapefugees not welcome’. The demonstrators chanted "Lying press, lying press" and turned away their faces to avoid being photographed, but did not visibly insult or attack our reporters.  

Pegida spokesperson Tatiana Festerling claimed in a speech that the German press did not report the truth about the mass sex assaults in Cologne. She maintained that the papers only told the full story days later, after international news media and social networks had reported that the suspects were asylum seekers from the Middle East. Ms Festerling, formerly of the extreme right AfD party, is standing for election as mayor of Dresden and often repeats the 'lying press' theme.

ECPMF researcher Martin Hoffman will present the results of his investigation to a special committee of the German Parliament on 13th January. He is one of a number of experts and editors-in-chief who are invited to brief Members of Parliament on the working conditions of journalists.