Interview by Martin Hoffmann, ECPMF

“We often took it too easy"

Interview with Michael Hiller, General Secretary of the Saxony DJV, Dresden

Michael Hiller Michael Hiller (photo: Martin Hoffmann)

What was the reason for publishing the resolution in October, that demanded “safety for media workers?”

We had already had almost half a year of continuing demonstrations by Pegida in which some of the demonstrators utter shouts of “Lügenpresse” (Liar press). In this very verbally aggressive atmosphere in the demonstrations, the first attacks happened. It had reached a stage where we had to say: as media we are united. We don’t feel guilty. We are not the liar press. First of all, we expect to be treated decently. And secondly, we expect proper protection.

It cannot be that the police and courts take care to protect freedom of expression on the one hand and do nothing to protect press freedom on the other. When journalists are prevented from doing their job, it’s an attack on press freedom. That’s why the DJV (journalists’ union) of Saxony and Turingia, the MDR (local TV station) and the Saxony Newspaper Publishers Association issued the joint explanation.

Did you get any reaction?

Up to now we have not had any from government circles. We were hoping for something from this united initiative. This is almost all the media that exist here. But still silence reigns amongst those who are responsible. It’s clear to us that a police officer cannot stand in front of or behind every journalist. But we expect that when it comes to attacks on media workers the police should not look away. They should intervene. That only happens sometimes.

So has it been reported to you that during Pegida Legia AfD demonstrations the police have consciously looked away when journalists were set upon?

I don’t know of any actual case where it happened like that. But it is the case that in such an aggressive atmosphere the work of journalists at the demonstrations becomes very difficult. When the Pegida demonstrations started, nobody would speak to the journalists. That was an absolute refusal. Then the second thing was the insults. The third was the actual assaults, screaming at them, spitting and shoving.

You are describing an escalation. Did the aggression escalate with the rising number of demonstrators?

About a year ago we had the first situation. A reporter from the New Dresden News was surrounded by demonstrators who were yelling at her. The headline was” Alone amongst the wolves” – that was how she portrayed it in her report. It was the first time that any member of editorial staff had dared to describe how it feels to be attacked like that. After the chanting came attacks then shouts then the first shoving.

And did the number of incidents increase?

It’s clear that the number of events increased. Almost every Monday something happened. Since the Pegida anniversary there has been something – major or small - at every demonstration,. We must clearly demand that we need more protection. For example the MDR teams have said that they cannot go out any more with their technical gear without security.

Do you believe it’s damaging press freedom?

Yes. I think it’s in danger because journalists and media workers can’t do any more to help each other. At the very least they need political support, from the Ministry of the Interior, the police, the judiciary, to make their work safe and thereby also to safeguard press freedom for everybody.

Do you think there is a connection between the Pegida and Legida and ADF being so strong in east Germany, perhaps because there is here a fundamentally low level of trust in the media?

I think that there is a certain conception of the media amongst those who lived through the German Democratic Republik (DDR) and that contributes to it. You hear that often from older people. They believe that everything in the newspaper is 100 percent politically and intentionally written. That is certainly also connected to the ‘Valley of the Clueless,’ the Dresden Kettle. Yet still there are not only people from the outskirts of Dresden in on the streets with Pegida.

Do the leaders of Pegida, Legida and so on have a direct influence on the escalation of violence against the press?

I think the situation has got worse since they initiated the ”Lying-press” chanting. Of course it’s not all the demonstrators who follow them, not by a long way. But yet there are ever more aggressive groups.

You criticise the way the authorities handle safety issues for journalists. What exactly would you want the police to do?

The thing is, they should not look away when journalists are assaulted.  And before each event they should hold a planning meeting to work out where the journalists should be able to do their job safely. Then we expect that when if something happens it will be revealed and punished, and that they don’t look the other way again. We already have the impression, especially here in Saxony, that it is a bit slow. Yesterday for example at Cottbus in Brandenberg, we read in the press release about an attack on a TV crew: “The police moved in immediately”. Our colleagues here wish they would do the same here.

How should they act differently here?

We often have the impression that the police are not there, we feel that we are alone. A while back we had a meeting with the Interior Ministry where they said:
We as police are not there to protect journalists but to make the demonstration safe. For us the journalist is actually a citizen just like any other.

We wanted to speak against him. We live in a democracy. That means freedom of expression, that means press freedom. And they should also be protected, and with them the people who represent them.

Are you advising your members to report infringements?

Yes we are advising members to report them. In the latest incidents that has been possible. We have photos of those who from the mass of people have struck blows or spat on journalists. But often it is the case at this dark time of year that we cannot recognise the perpetrators.. We are trying also to get into direct contact with the police association, so that we can accompany them. We would be pleased if in the police reports these matters were given more attention.

So does that happen with every assault? You as regional leader of the German Union of Journalists are regularly researching these incidents.

At first nothing much happened at the demonstrations. I have even heard from colleagues that it was boring. Then for example an attack happened on a camera team and of course they had to think again. In addition, my research has also shown that some colleagues who were also taking part in confrontation have a different perspective on it. But you also have to take into account that journalists’ jobs always involved confrontation. It’s just that in recent years we have not had so much of it. It’s a new experience for our colleagues. So at first they were shocked.

Is this, then, this distortion of some individual cases – is this why they accuse the co-called ‘liar press’?

I do think that occasionally some cases are exaggerated.

Can you give an actual example?

For example a few weeks ago a reception centre for newly-arrived refugees was blockaded by the people who live nearby. There were journalists there, and not really enough police. The journalists were in the thick of it, and they were verbally abused.  So the police said to the journalists: for safety reasons we are going to move you away from here. But when the reports were published they said that police had prevented journalists from doing their jobs. These are totally different interpretations of the same event.

What the far-right demonstrators accuse us of when they say ‘liar press’ is just actually a very one-sided way of reporting. And there have been studies that show the majority of journalists are left-liberal in their opinions. So perhaps there is something in these accusations?

I can´t see a very one-sided coverage. The start of the demonstrations and the first outcry led journalists and media academics to criticise and scrutinise our work more intensively. When we observe our work we can see the herd instinct that we sometimes develop. Then you can see that we concentrate on certain themes and that when a theme is given a particular orientation, it continues to be reported in that way. Only later do we see that it could all have been seen in a different way. It is self-critical to say that we have tried to make things easy for ourselves. Not enough questions have been asked. You have probably been to press conferences where there were no questions? That is shocking.

Can you think of any other reasons for this?

It’s a huge problem that many people do not know what journalists actually do. We should talk more about what we do and how we really do a good job, so that we become accepted. Of course because of the rigours of journalism some things are not always done as conscientiously as they ought to be done. So when the recipient realises that one think that is represented as fact is not correct, that throws into question the whole thing. I believe that these negative things can also have a positive side for journalism. There are many reporters out there who tell me that they are trying to do their job more conscientiously.

So under pressure of scrutiny, journalism is scrutinising itself more strictly?

Yes, it has lead to people thinking, shall I report this as it is or shall I make some more inquiries. It has led to a raising of standards, in my opinion.