Interviews by Martin Hoffmann, ECPMF

"The police could not cope"

Merten Waage is a 24 years old radio editor. Since November 2014 he works for mephisto 97.6, the radio-station of the University of Leipzig. He is responsible editor of the Feuilleton broadcast "Kultstatus". Besides, he studies political sciences, German and radio journalism.


Can you describe what happened that evening, when you suffered threats, insults and persecution while covering a Legida-demonstration in Leipzig?

On the 21January it was the first time that lots of participants were expected to join Legida-demonstration. We had therefore decided with the editorial board to cover this right-populist protest and to report directly from there, not only in the leftist counter-demonstration as before. So I went to the Augustusplatz to ask the Legida-People why they demonstrate there, some minutes before the march started from there.

How did the participants respond to your questions in this moment?

They quickly started to insult me and stated that I just want to report negatively, that I would only look for something to make them look bad. That was absolute nonsense. I have not asked them why they demonstrate there together with neo-Nazis, for example, but only: why they follow the demonstration.

Can you repeat exactly what you have asked them?

I always started with the question why they are now with this demonstration. Whether they are there out of the fear of Islamization, or whether they have other issues. Almost no one responded to my questions. Actually, they most of them stated: "Now you want snap sounds that you can cut." I just said I'm sorry, I'm from the local radio station mephisto, we do not plan to do so. Then some of them started to reply my question, saying for example that they were dissatisfied with the pension system for example.

You were attacked later. Was the level of aggression rising from the beginning?

There was no development. As the march started, we stood between the policemen, who started walking forward, and the people who hold this big Legida-banner at the head of the demonstration. Then insults got worse, for example, - it’s vulgar - "you Journalistenfotze". Then I was spat upon already at the back - and the policeman who was standing right next to me did nothing.

Were you clearly to identify as a journalist then?

I wore a radio mephisto jacket and had a microphone with a ribbon of Mephisto... It was obvious that I belong to the press, there was nothing hidden.

But the policeman did nothing?

No. I said "Excuse me, what is happening here?" Then the police officer: "Can you tell me who that was?" But as someone spat upon me in the neck I could not. From then on we were molested constantly with "Switch the micro off", or "Do now the camera", or "What do you want here?", but we could do our job. It then became really bad when a counter-protester jumped over the barricades and showed a rainbow flag.

What happened then?

At this moment, about thirty to forty men or women − they disguised themselves that moment − came forward and stood in the front row, very vulgar and aggressive. A little further on, the road was very wide. There, these people have split from the demonstration and I was unfortunately exactly in between them. The police had not considered that the route gave them this big space. That was my problem. I had just continued recording with my microphone but suddenly I was there without any police in front of these people. They freaked out and shouted "Now we'll get you." Then the raid began. I just started to run, 150 meters or so to get behind a wall of police-men, together with some other journalists. When I arrived there, the policemen did not let us pass, because they have not figured what was going on there. I said "We were attacked, what's going on here, what is this?" But they were so rigid. They simply could not cope with the situation.

Can you describe again how many journalists were involved in this situation?

I was three meters away from the Legida protesters. As a radio journalist, I had to remain relatively close for my sound bites. Next to me there was the colleague with the photo camera, and a video journalist was a bit behind us.

How did the video-journalist got out of it?

He was kicked and fell, but because he just did not get away as fast as me with the camera. I have only seen in the race that he was caught, and that someone was faster than him. Luckily I had only my microphone.

And the photographer?

His camera was slapped into the face, he ended in hospital. He really suffered the most. Additionally his camera was broken.

These other two colleagues were clearly identifiable as journalists? I ask this because one might think that they are probably photographers of the two extremists groups, Antifa and Anti-Antifa, who act indeed very confrontational at such events ...

Only journalists were allowed to run between Legida and the police at all, from where we have been covering. The previously controlled us. We had to proof that we are journalists showing press IDs, editorial order, all kind of things. Only journalists could walk, where we have been walking.

Have you, as you have wanted to protect the police, clearly identified yourself as press?

Yes of course, I have never put my microphone away. It was always visible that I am reporter of mephisto 97.6 radio station.

When would you say the police were overwhelmed?

I believe that it was a situation when journalists are used to have the protection of the police. But the police of Leipzig did not know where they had to enter and react. The riot police have been waiting for the orders of their police commander, but they were in their patrol cars and could not respond appropriately in this moved situation. I stood next to a commander, who has been talking by cell phone. I really stood right next him on the Augustusplatz, and the people come and spit and insult me. And I just look at him and he says: Yes, is anything? I ask him. Haven`t you noticed? - Sorry, I was on the phone, he replied. In this very moment I have lost my faith.

But the police have not turned a blind eye on purpose, did they?

I would only say that they were not sure in their action. Firstly they have also denied that this happened. We have researched everything the same night in the office. In the morning I called the spokesman of Leipzig police. Then it became clear that they had not figured till then, what has happened there on Legida-demonstration. They called me a liar till the moment we have sent them our evidence.

Who has you as accused of lying?

The spokesman said that they had not received any information about harassed journalists and that none of the commanders had reported something. And that it would have been reported by journalists, if it would have happened. Then I said: I have reported, I said that - but it did not reach them at that moment.

This group has attacked you, may you categorize them?

They have disguised themselves and were clearly searching for counter-demonstrators or anyone to be be aggressive or violent. Alone, that they all react to a sign of one person shouting "go, go" and all are rushing forward is a proof to me. It appeared to me that they have agreed either as a group to act or they have previously planned their action. Indeed they exactly attacked at a place, where they could escape from the demonstration. They did not act by chance.

You then reported to the police – there are any findings? At what stage is the criminal investigation now?

We have denounced jointly. There is a photojournalist, whose name I do not want to mention here. He was standing right next to me. For him it is a blatant thing that the police did not want to perceive what happened to him. It took quite a long time until the police understood this and the prosecutor wanted to record it. This colleague did not really want to participate in the beginning. One must also say that we were threatened the next day because of our reporting in the radio station. Some people asked for my name, my address, my phone number. They claimed that I would invent the sound bites. Three weeks ago the photographer decided to state what happened at the prosecution department. I also understand my colleagues not to go directly to the prosecutor's office. I think he had to overcome only once. For now, he is also in the media, and his face is shown.

And what kind of offence is going to be investigated?

It's about targeted assault and secondly to property damage.

Has the experience affected your concept of journalism?

I did not go to some Legida or anti-Legida demonstration again. That was too much for me and too extreme, so will not do a live report from there again.

Do you see the freedom of the press affected by these incidents?

Of course, one must have this perspective. At the station we have decided that we only go there with two people, because no one knows, what might happen, whether from left-wing extremists or Legida. Press freedom begins for me at the point, when I can report, what I can see.

"PEGIDA approves violence against journalists"

Telephone-interview with Dirk Birgel, editor in chief at Dresdner Neueste Nachrichten (regional newspaper in Dresden, Saxony), 25.11.2015

Dirk Birgel Dirk Birgel (Photo: Dresdner Neue Nachrichten)

The "Leipziger Volkszeitung" quoted you in the end of September with the words "I have the impression that the pressure for prosecution by the police is that low that people feel encouraged to do such a thing and then disappear in the crowd." Back then, this referred to an attack on local reporters in connection with a PEGIDA-demonstration in Dresden. Could you once again describe the situation from which this quote emerged?

In the evening, the colleague came back to the editorial office after having been at the PEGIDA-demonstration and reported the incident, where he suffered a punch in his face. This was a big shock for us as it showed that the inhibition threshold is lowered extremely. This became once again obvious with the attack on Gemkow’s flat [Minister of Justice, Saxony, ed. note]. I have to add: This was not an attack targeted at this reporter, but at his function as representative of the press. Apparently, limits are consciously exceeded with the aim to cause uncertainty and possibly even influence the reporting. This was a dimension I did not experience before.

So you are saying that this is intended to influence reporting?

Obviously this is an attempt at intimidation. And I go as far to say that people like Lutz Bachmann [initiator of the PEGIDA-movement, ed. note] and others consciously approve such things. If they heat up the crowd with tirades of hate and shouts of "Lügenpresse" (lying press), then they approve that single persons without further assistance get active by themselves – that they punch journalists or break politician’s windowpanes.

You are saying that movements like PEGIDA, LEGIDA up to the AFD are paving the way for this aggressive atmosphere?

The seeds they are sowing sprout there, yes.

As editor in chief you are responsible for your employees and subcontracted freelance reporters and photographers. Which measures did you take facing these developments and which possibilities to secure your staff do you have?

Every member of the staff has the freedom to say 'This is too hot for me, I am not going to any demonstrations of PEGIDA or whomever and put myself at such a risk.' But so far, no one made use of this possibility.  Furthermore I said: 'If you feel safer with personal security, tell me' and I would provide some for them. But all reporters answered: 'No, we want to move freely as we are used to, we want to do our work as usual.' The only security measure I took was that on Mondays, when the so-called 'walks' are taking place, there is a temporary protection of property for our editorial building, just to avoid that the mob might think, when passing by at Külz-Ring, shouting 'Lügenpresse' and 'We’ll catch you!' that they can spontaneously walk into the editorial office and smash everything into pieces. We make plain that our entrance is secured.

Do you in fact consider the possibility that a mob, during those walks, would force their way into the editorial office?

We received a clue which I took seriously. Apparently there exists a group among the evening strollers that is ready to further radicalise and exert violence, which might be directed against the press. So far, no one tried to enter the editorial office, this has to be said for the sake of fairness.

This clue came from the security service?

Yes, from official sources.

Can I thus conclude that the security service you were criticising with your quote mentioned in the beginning is now more vigilant?

No, we received this clue before the incident with the reporter.

How do you perceive the current protection of journalists on and around Dresden? Of what quality is the cooperation with the security services?

The basic problem is: I cannot reproach single police men. By now there is so much to secure at the demonstrations that they do not have enough staff for this situation. Thus the pressure for prosecution at such demonstrations does not have the dimension desirable and necessary. I wished that in the situation in which my reporter found himself, there would have been police men present to first protect him, but second document the crime to press charges. But there was no police nearby to intervene. The people inclined to let their fists rule can be relatively sure to get away with it, as nobody catches them red-handed. Considering the aggression potential of some single participant at the demonstrations, they are inadequately secured. Apparently threats and violent infringements are no exception there.

Do you have the impression that aggressions are more likely to come from conservative citizens or from the right-wing mob that exerted this in former times with the same vocabulary and actions against journalists?

I would assign this to the latter group. Also more to younger and physically stronger participants than to the common 'concerned citizen'.

When you say that there is not enough police to secure the demonstrations – is this political reluctance?

No, there is no political reluctance in Saxony. There exists a change in the views. PEGIDA has its first anniversary. 15 months ago no one would have imagined that there are weekly demonstrations at different spots all over the country, which all need police security. Nobody did see this coming and thus could not have had the necessary staff in stock. In this respect one cannot simply say that Ministers of the Interior just snap their fingers and suddenly have 10.000 new police men. They can’t just acquire them from a fair. I have troubles pointing my finger at someone saying 'The current situation is your fault'.

But can you understand that by now a relatively big part of the population loses trust in the press, or that this at least decreases? And if so, which reasons do you see for that?

There are many causes. I see one essential reason in the fact that parts of the society do not only get informed by serious news sources, but mainly via social networks, where they also communicate. There, their views and opinions get confirmed in a way the press never did and never will do. This is an auto-reinforcing mechanism. There you feel at home, welcome and at ease.

I believe that those are people who simply withdrew from the public discourse. We experience this with PEGIDA. When one tries to get involved into a conversation with them, you experience rejection. They do not want to be confronted with reality, the press or whomever. They live, so to say, in their own PEGIDA-cosmos and everything communicated there is the truth – and everything not agreeing to this is a lie.

Had the Lügenpresse -debate noticeable economic consequences for your newspaper? There were those campaigns, especially in social networks by PEGIDA, LEGIDA, 'Don’t buy the lying press'…

It is hardly noticeable. We have cancellations. Partly they refer directly to the 'Lügenpresse', partly there is the reproach that we do not report entirely, not objectively, way too uncritical concerning crimes committed by refugees. The number of cancellation clearly exceeded in comparison to the time before PEGIDA. But I do not want to say that the numbers of such a dimension that this as major economic effects. But the number generally has risen.

How do you perceive the situation in the region of Dresden, in the reach of your newspaper: Are there restrictions in press freedom caused by such attacks and threats against journalists?

No, there are no restrictions in press freedom, quite the contrary: In our editorial office, this had had a contrary effect, so that we even said 'We move closer, we take responsibility for another.' And we do our job as carefully and well as we can. 

Martin Hoffmann is in charge of ECPMF’s Journalists-in-Residence-program and works as a researcher and investigative reporter on fact finding missions.