Interview by Martin Hoffmann, ECPMF

"PEGIDA approves violence against journalists"

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.

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