Interview by Martin Hoffmann, ECPMF

"We should make transparent what journalism is"

Interview with Andreas Postel, TV-reporter and director of ZDF-Landesstudio Thuringia (Erfurt)

Andreas Postel Andreas Postel (photo: ZDF/Rico Rossival)

How do you perceive the situation for journalists reporting from populist´s demonstrations in Thuringia?

The atmosphere is very aggressive. So there is no way to conduct a rational discussion or to exchange arguments. The fronts are so hardened and they are so convinced of their opinion that there is no sense in reasoning. When thousands are shouting "lying press", reporting is not so pleasant of course. But we do not have this strong demonstrations as PEGIDA in Dresden in Thuringia. It has become bigger and the insults of journalists have risen on occasion of AFD demonstrations with Thuringian ADF-leader Björn Höcke. The larger these demonstrations grew, the more unpleasant it became to cover from there.

Reporting from AFD-demonstrations you receive verbal threats – to what extent have you been exposed to threats and defamation there?

In difference to our newspaper colleagues we are clearly to indentify as journalists due to our camera-team. We make it transparent for whom we work for, so that's quite clear. Till now we receive primarily insults like: "Piss off” ", "Lying press", "Everything is controlled" "Start to report the truth” and so on.

So far the attacks happened on the verbal level then − or have there been any direct violence to employees of the Thuringian department of ZDF?

No, there were no such incidents. But we must always expect it to switch from a pure insult to an aggressive physical assault. We have had that in Saxony -Anhalt. There a cameraman was pushed around, another colleague from Deutschlandradio Kultur was jostled as well. This can switch very quickly. We fear it and hope at the same time that it does not happen. We have experienced comparable situations in the nineties, while covering from the nazi-demonstrations back then.

Are there discussions with team, before you go out to report from potential dangerous situations?

We always talk before we cover a potentially tensed situation, because it is important that we speak with each other and that you know what everybody is up to and how to handle it. Over the years we all have made our experiences reporting from radical right-wing demonstrations and events that can be found here in central Germany. In this respect, all know what they are getting themselves into.

Has anybody of the employees addressed that he feels threatened? Have some said "there and I'd rather not go"?

No. It has not become that extreme yet. Perhaps in response to the attempted attack on the candidate for mayor in Cologne. Then it was noticed that this verbal hatred sown from PEGIDA in Dresden, with the gallows, etc. may possibly turn into violence. Might it be unfounded or not, since then we have hired two plain clothed security guards who watch the camera crew. I have decided that we will not send our camera crews without security to demonstrations of AFD in Erfurt. And I will do so from case to case from now on.

Is it not provoking to appear with securities?

No, the most important thing is that they appear de-escalating and not martial in any form. It is just a matter of having a self-protection. A camera man, when having the camera on his shoulder, can´t check the field of vision beyond the camera. So he is safer now. And there have been provocations as people approached and tried to film us with cell phone.

This filming of journalists on demonstrations by some participants seems to be quite common by now. Before, in the '90s, it only happened at neo-Nazi- or anti-fascist demonstrations. Is that part of the job now, that you are filmed?

We don´t react on that, we are in public anyway as we are working for a Public Service Broadcaster. And if anyone has a good camera on his cell phone, he will use it.

I ask because: this material could then be used against you, e.g. it could be published on webpages relevant to a certain public, written below: "This is Andreas Postel, who belongs to the lying press enterprise ZDF, this is his address” and so on… Has something alike happened to you or do you fear it?

Every journalist gives thought on what subjects he will investigate and to what intensity, and everybody will come to his individual conclusions. For me it is clear that my job is to report what happens. And when we report about social aggression at AFD-demonstrations, or about right-wing radicals or what groups so ever, it is part of my job which includes a certain risk. You have to accept that. In this respect I'm not making up my mind, but I know that such things can happen.

Have there been any insults, posts, shit-storms or other kind of defamation on social media, which have put your work in question so far?

I myself have never experienced this, but do not consider to be excluded for all times. I know of many colleagues who have been clearly and deliberately attacked verbally through social networks. It obviously belongs to reality now that in this anonymity of Twitter or Facebook people tend to insult more quickly. But there is a new alarming phenomenon…

… please tell u s…

… What I find very unpleasant is that someone like the leader of the AFD in Thuringia, Björn Höcke, targets certain journalists by name and reviews their publication on stage at demonstrations - in front of thousands of his followers. That happened here at Erfurt. Höcke mentioned an editor of regional paper Thüringer Allgemeine and began to insinuate that he had not reported correctly about him. Connected with this aggressive tone it can easily be understood wrong. Someone like Björn Höcke, a depute in the Thuringian Parliament, working even as a group chairman there, should be moderate and responsible in his public speeches.. This is a new quality.

Do you see press freedom restricted, directly or indirectly, through the populistic movement?

Basically in our everyday work, doing interviews or street surveys, there is no effect. People walking towards us normally and we can get our interviews. The new experience is that there is actually a kind of parallel society: I believe that those who have set their opinion summarized under the heading "Lying Press" clearly separate themselves from the others. There is a hard core of people who you won´t reach anymore, who carry around their conspiracy theories and assume that we as representatives of the media are bound by directions from the government and follow them blindly. There's nothing to be done about that kind of people. I don´t think the level of aggression is higher today as in the mid-nineties, when right wing extremism was quite more disseminated. But what is different today is a wide uncertainty about what journalism is…

What should journalists do about it?

I think what we have to do is: We have to do make our research paths transparent, we must make our work transparent, we have to explain what our profession is, to explain them why it is more then – what some assume – looking up information in social networks but an effort, an investigative research which takes time, money and energy. If you want get something positive out of it: it is also a plea to us as journalists, a commitment to work as exactly and correct as we have as we have all done and learned it.

Out of your experience as a reporter covering from extremists and populists sites for lots of year – you have any advises how to protect themselves in these situations?

If you are traveling with a team the most important thing is that you have previously achieved a consensus in the team, what you're doing. You have to talk to each other and one must jointly make a decision, how far you want to go. For the loner colleagues, especially VJs, I would recommend that they perhaps get someone to their side, so that one is not alone.

Andreas Postel is director of the Thuringian broadcasting centre of ZDF (Second German Television), located in Erfurt. Besides his administrative duties he reports for all daily and weekly broadcasts of nationwide broadcaster ZDF and is doing documentaries on social topics. Main subjects of his work are right-wing extremism, the socio-economical development of the eastern “Bundesländer” and cultural subjects. More information (in German)