DE: Federal Supreme Court decides on statements on a satire show

Ingo Beckendorf

On 10 January 2017, the German Federal Court (Bundesgerichtshof, BGH) has rejected the libel actions of two journalists of the German weekly newspaper “Die Zeit” against the public service broadcaster „Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen” (ZDF).

On 29 April 2014, the TV station transmitted a satire show. In that programme, two cabaret artists claimed, that the plaintiffs had connections to organizations that deal with security policy issues. With their action, the journalists tried to get an injunction against the transmission of the show by the broadcaster. The satire show contained a dialogue between the two cabaret artists. The central theme of this talk was the question of whether the plaintiffs were independent when reporting about security policy issues. The cabaret artists claimed that the journalists were members, management board members or part of an advisory body of eight respectively three organizations, that deal with security policy issues. In addition, they claimed that one of the journalists wrote a speech of the German Federal President, which he held at a Security Conference in Munich in 2014. Afterwards, the journalist who had written the speech had reported benevolent about it. In the opinion of the plaintiffs, those were inaccurate factual claims. On 8 September 2015, the Hanseatic Higher Regional Court (Hanseatisches Oberlandesgericht, OLG) decided in favor of the journalists (7 U 121/14; 7 U 120/14) and ordered the defendant ZDF to refrain from publishing the disputed statements. However, the BGH set aside this judgment and dismissed the action of the journalists. In the Court’s opinion, the OLG had misinterpreted the meaning of the disputed statements. The BGH pointed out that, according to the correct interpretation, the cabaret artists’ statements were not false, and therefore they could not be forbidden. According to the BGH, to find out the true meaning of a statement, it is necessary to see the overall context of the statement. It is typical for a satire show to work with elements of exaggeration. Therefore, it is critical, which message the objective receiver understands. Therefore, the cabaret artists had only said, that there are connections between the plaintiffs and several organizations who deal with security policy issues. These comments were true.

Ingo Beckendorf is a journalist and a legal expert of the Institute of European Media Law (EMR) in Saarbrücken/Brüssel


The press release of the Federal Supreme Court regarding the cases VI ZR 561/15 and VI ZR 562/15 is available in German language.


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