Interview by Martin Hoffmann, ECPMF

The press should not be surprised“

Interview with Vera Lengsfeld, civil rights activist

Vera Lengsfeld Vera Lengsfeld (photo: Martin Hoffmann)

In the GDR it was known that the press was lying, you said. What do you think about the currently very prominent buzzword ‘Lügenpresse’ (lying press)?

Concerning some reporting, the press should not be surprised if this is said. Taking the case of Akif Pirinçci with his famous PEGIDA-speech: He was blamed by the media for something he did not say. The machinerie of indignation then went this far that even his innocent cat crime novels are no more being distributed. This is an attack on a person which cannot be accepted. The same media would have to publish revocations. But now the milk is already split – he has the stigma and will hardly get rid of it. With one exception – I guess it was ‘Berliner Zeitung’ – who reported correctly, all the others apparently wrongly copied from each other. Such a thing should not happen.

Do you know about other examples where reporting was disadvantageous to someone probably having a different opinion?

Yes. Jörg Baberowski is a renowned professor for history at Berlin’s Humboldt-University, who wrote internationally acknowledged books on Stalinism. He was put in an extreme right-wing corner. This lead to the consequence that some of his students considered it appropriate to install posters warning about the ‘Nazi-Professor’. Also in ‘Der Tagesspiegel’ and ‘Die Welt’ he was called right-wing. And it is the same with “Achse des Guten” [‘Axis of the Good’, political blog, ed. note] for which I write. There was an article in ‘Der Tagesspiegel’ telling that the ‘Axis’ had extreme right-wing tendencies. What is embarrassing: The co-founder [Henryk M., ed. note] Broder is author at this newspaper, I wrote for this newspaper and other authors of the ‘Axis’ did so… Actually ‘Der Tagesspiegel’ assured itself that it offers a platform to authors with right-wing tendencies.

One could interpret it in a way that ‘Der Tagesspiegel’ contributes to a plurality of opinions giving such authors the possibility to publish there…

I am not sure, if ‘Der Tagesspiegel’ would like such an interpretation. They withdrew quickly and apologised.

Do you recognize there an anticipating obedience?

I believe that there is an anticipating adjustment to the suspected opinion of the majority. But this has nothing to do with freedom of opinion. Freedom of opinion means that you also have to tolerate opinions you do not agree with. If it is even said that ‘you can have your own opinions, but please at home on your couch and not in the public’ – well, this is the GDR situation.

Once again: Is the term ‘Lügenpresse’ (lying press) suitable in your opinion? What do you think about this term?

The term does not derive from the PEGIDA-movement, it was used by the right and the left. Only with PEGIDA it is suddenly stigmatised. One has the possibility not to like this term – but time and time again there are article where I have to say: one should not be surprised that people are using this term. Also the reporting about PEGIDA-demonstrations is biased, the protesters are really completely peaceful.

I have to disagree with you concerning the completely peaceful PEGIDA-protests. I investigated different cases and personally talked to journalists who became victims of violence at PEGIDA or LEGIDA events.

I cannot confirm nor reject this. If I would investigate, I would first and foremost have a closer look to identify: Who are those people who supposedly exerted violence against journalists? Where those really PEGIDA-people or others? I can tell from our experiences at the protests in the Peaceful Revolution [Germany 1989/1990] that there were many agitators present. The Stasi [former secret police in East Germany, ed. note] just sent its own people in there. They caused that the protests did not remain peaceful, but became violent. The slogan back then was “Defuse the agitators”. I have not been to such a demonstration now, but if I was organising the PEGIDA-protests, I would do it like this.

But when journalists go to such events, they do it to inform the public about it, not to act as agitators.

There was this case of a journalists who went undercover to a PEGIDA-demonstration. When he did not receive the desired statements, he put himself in front of the microphone to then himself give the xenophobic statements he was looking for. Later, this was exposed.

In this case, it is true. However, one cannot equate all journalists with this single RTL-reporter.

I agree, this was a slip-up and not all journalists are the same. But most of the reports about the protesters are not objective, but hostile.

But the problem is that journalists experienced violence at demonstrations, repeatedly, or where directly threatened. Are you not seeing a problem deriving from this movement?

No. As I know – and all people I talked to confirmed – that 99% of those people are completely peaceful. I was told about cases where journalists acted aggressively. They took pictures of people who refused and a ‘No’ was not accepted. By the way: If the Antifa [anti-fascistic association, ed. note] announces to attack 50 buildings in Leipzig and systematically carries this out, this is not mentioned in country-wide media.

That is not right, it was reported. One could surely argue about the extend…

Maybe it was mentioned. But when I give lectures, the majority of my listeners never heard of this. Currently the Antifa re-started to set cars on fire, for example of Beatrix von Storch [member of the European Parliament, politician of AfD (Alternative für Deutschland), ed. note], now also from a Bärgida-participant [local Berlin PEGIDA movement, ed. note]. That is not mentioned.

Back to the freedom of the press and PEGIDA – Siegfried Däbritz, for example, is in the organisational team. He wrote – this was proven by a Facebook post – in an internal communication group: ‘Journalist Olaf Sundermeyer will be coming later, he is on his way to Meißen, this is his car number plate, check out what he is doing…’ What do you think about this?

When you know that this journalist is covering PEGIDA, than it is no surprise that Däbritz wants to know what he is doing. The Antifa does this publicly, on their websites. They publish addresses of people who should be attacked on the street and distribute them on flyers…

It is true that this is happening. But according to my state of knowledge, the Antifa does not restrict the freedom of journalists through threats.

I do not understand this argumentation. If the Antifa imagines and even executes threatening scenarios against all kinds of people, this is something else than doing this against journalists? I do not agree.

In this case journalists are hindered from the execution of their profession, and thus from the execution of their task to inform the public, unlike private persons.

What if I was threatened by the Antifa? I am a journalist, too. So this makes a difference?

No, it does not. But there is a difference if you are threatened because of your professional activity or because of your private attitude. This is another dimension.

I see it differently. Human being is human being. I do not agree.

If one wants to inform the public about a certain event and is hindered – then this is a restriction of the freedom of the press. I can put it like this, can’t I?

If the public is correctly informed, yes. But in many cases it is not informed correctly, and this is the crucial point.

First one has to assume this…

Yes, I am no supporter of any violence, neither verbally nor physically. I am against it – no matter from whom it is coming. I simply do not want the existence of double standards. If this small PEGIDA-gallows [carried at a demonstration, ed. note] is made a big scandal, but a bloodstained guillotine at the TTIP-protests is not, then I consider this problematic.

Going on to another topic now. I got the idea to contact you for an interview during a telephone call with ‘Der Tagesspiegel’-columnist Helmut Schümann. He told me that you presented his depiction of an attack because of his journalistic occupation in Berlin as made up…

I listed that there are no witnesses, during the shopping rush hour in Berlin-Charlottenburg, that there was no description of the offender…

How did you know this?

I relied on the articles published back then. There it was written that he was not able to give a description of the offender to the police, just that the man was running towards Kurfürstendamm. This seemed weird to me. Then ‘Der Tagesspiegel’ published a strange article telling that it was not true, that he called the emergency right away and filed charges. This happened two days later. I just said that this seemed weird to me. As he would not be recognized in the Neonazi-scene. I did not claim that it did not happen, I said it seems unlikely to me that it happened that way.

There were no witnesses, so this is speculative. So for me there is the question if you live up to your full responsibility as prominent civil rights activists if you are doubting this case?

Is he living up to his full responsibility if goes public with a Facebook post claiming things which are not correct? How trustworthy is a journalists who is lying to his readers or Facebook friends in two crucial points? For me he is not trustworthy, I am sorry.

I think it is difficult if you are furthermore implying in your article that he is taking advantage of the incident because he wants a secure job or ‘Der Tagesspiegel’ is in economic difficulties. Here you underpin the lying press-debate without having any evidence, only indications.

First of all, I did not claim anything. I compared different facts and drew my conclusions out of it. We agreed before that everyone has his or her own opinion and I have one, too. I never stated anything as factual.

You literally said in a presentation on the media coverage of the Berlin organisation of Pegida that „the untruthful antifascism from GDR times is now to find in the media again...“

Yes, Bärgida has been branded completely wrongly. With „untruthful antifascism“ I mean that the GDR always claimed itself as an antifascist German state, that has done more than just to overcome the Nazi dictatorship. Which actually wasn´t true. Today, the accusation of beeing a Nazi or close to Nazis is used in an inflationary way and as a weapon.

I still do not fully understand what you mean with that: How does the media use the „untruthful antifascism“ today against the citizens?

One cannot use those five people, who were recogniseable as members of the NPD party [National Democratic Party of Germany, a right-wing party, ed. note] only for insiders, as representative for every participant of the Bärgida-demonstration. That was the point I made. If you do this, hundreds of people are stigmatised automatically. And even with those five guys you don´t know who they were. It is widely known that the NPD is deeply infiltrated by the German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV). Simply remember the anti-Hartz [reform of the social benefits system, ed note] demonstrations which hundreds of NPD party members attended with banners. In this case double standards have been applied.

You wrote in an article at the webpage „eigentümlich frei“ on 29th September 2015, that media lost its watchdog function over the government. What are the reasons?

This has already been already a long lasting process. But I explicitly noticed it after the summer press conference of chancellor Angela Merkel, when she announced her policy of open borders. And the media coverage seemed like statements of the government instead of any critics or questions. They supported her policy over weeks, only after a few months it begun to change slightly as the problems of her decision became obvious. At the same time any critics of the decision have been stigmatised, no matter how discreet they were. To be “right-wing” again was the worst accusation. The left press came up with the Nazi-comparison, which is used inflationary for everyone who does not agree with the mainstream media. So, I came to the conclusion that media lost its supervision power over governmental decisions widely.

Would you include all national newspapers and all public broadcasters or do you see any differences?

The public broadcasters are even worse! They acted like the “Aktuelle Kamera” in GDR times and took everything for granted that the chancellor, her spokesman or other officials said – without any reflection. And so it was with the national media. I see a difference to the local press, as they had to report on local events and so they were forced to see the overload of the local authorities with the new arrivals and the resulting problems, e.g. aggression amongst refugees.

So you don´t see any differences among the political spectrum to which the newspapers belong to, too?

Not in general. First of all, one could find articles in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) that could be easily published in taz or Junge Welt. On the other hand, there are some surprising articles in taz that you would rather see in FAZ. So I think it does not depend on the papers policies but on the initiatives and the courage of individual journalists. This is a remarkable phenomenon.

Has it been different on the past? You said you noticed it since the summer press conference of the chancellor?

It happened before, too. I relate the development to the governmental period and to the government of Angela Merkel. As far as I know, Merkel was the only chancellor who systematically called editors-in-chief to her office and asked for a certain coverage. It started with the euro crisis and the euro bailout fund and is obviously continued until today. I see that the editors-in-chief met her request.

How do you know about that, what are your sources? Or do you mean background talks?

No, I do not mean background talks. The talks in the chancellery were leaked and published in some newspapers.

So for you the year 2005 is a milestone and the uniformity of the media started slowly back then?

Yes, because I remember clearly how differentiated the press landscape was back in the beginning of the 90s. Friends kept asking me “How could you read FAZ and taz at the same time? They are the opposite.” I replied with a smile saying “Yes, you have to be informed of both sides, not one-sided”. This is only one example of how differentiated the press landscape was. I still see with some West Germans that they have this pattern: FAZ is conservative, Welt a bit and the taz is leftist. But the reality does not match with those patterns.

Do you see other reasons than chancellor Merkel`s initiatives? In my opinion the staff of the newspapers and their mentalities did not change much.

It is not completely true. If investigations now find that 70 percent of the journalists are meant to be “green”, the staff must have changed. I cannot imagine that 70 percent of the journalists have had a green tendiency before the German reunification.

Yes, there are findings that the majority of the journalists has a left-liberal tendency. But this does not automatically lead to the political orientation of the newspapers.

There is less and less own research. Journalists count on the news agencies. I tried it and googled some phrases out of pieces of news agencies and I found: If you have, say, 120 articles on one topic and you read them, you can be sure that some wording of the agencies is in almost every article. I am convinced it has not been like this before.

What is well-made journalism for you?

There is one very good phrase that has been quoted a lot recently and is attributed to Hajo Friedrichs: „You should not make yourself common with a cause. Not even with a good one.“ From journalism I expect – beside the comments that are marked as opinion lead pieces - a professional distance to a case. But I see that news are mixed more and more with opinions. It is a fatal development, because in a dictatorship you knew that press is lying. So one always read between the lines. But today many people believe that everything written in the newspaper is true. If they then see that this is not the case, confidence erodes. This is very bad, because confidence is very important for democracies. If it vanishes, it directly influences the democracy.

Are there some German or German-language media that you would trust or classify as good journalism?

From time to time I see good articles. But I would not connect it to a certain newspaper. Maybe to only one newspaper that I write for - the Preußische Allgemeine.

I´ve never read the Preußische Allgemeine. What is especoially well done from a journalistic perspective?

It is the only libertarian newspaper in Germany. They do very traditional reporting, very critical with a distant view. But it is only a niche publication.

Do you see impacts on press freedom in the debate on „Lügenpresse“?

Yes, I do. If there is false coverage, the reporters limit the press freedom by themselves.