The controversy between German media and the right wing

By Ian Strahn EBS Contributor

On a sunlit June afternoon, around 60 flag-bearing Germans have gathered in the shadow of Berlin Central Station to take a stand against what they call the “Islamization of Germany.”

The demonstrators are members of Bärgida, the local offshoot of an organization known as Pegida. Translated, it stands for “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West.”

Perched on a makeshift stage a greying politician named Manfred Rouhs greets the crowd with a toothy smile. He wishes the demonstrators a “happy Ramadan,” which elicits jeers and laughter.

Jonas Frykman poses for a photo in the Aktionsbündnis Brandenburg. Frykman’s organization is devoted to combatting racism in Germany and often advises journalists how to depict members of the right wing. PHOTO BY KIRA VERCRUYSSEN

Jonas Frykman poses for a photo in the Aktionsbündnis Brandenburg. Frykman’s organization is devoted to combatting racism in Germany and often advises journalists how to depict members of the right wing. PHOTO BY KIRA VERCRUYSSEN

In his speech, Rouhs references a recent newspaper article that depicted him and the participants of an earlier anti-refugee demonstration as neo-Nazis, and accused them of inciting violent attacks on refugee shelters. The audience boos, then begins to chant, “Lügenpresse,” German for lying press.

The next day, neither the local nor the German national media make any mention of Rouhs and the Bärgida demonstrators; after all, the event has become routine. Bärgida has been holding rallies like this every Monday for months.

In the wake of the current European refugee crisis, skepticism and mistrust of the media have become part of everyday discourse, and are no longer limited to the political fringes. Reporters in Germany face the challenge of addressing the politically charged, complex issues of flight, migration and integration while remaining unbiased. Many Germans believe that journalists have been unsuccessful thus far.

***

The term Lügenpresse has become commonplace in the modern German vernacular. It is used by right-wing organizations like Pegida to express the belief that the German press is beholden to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s pro-refugee policies.

Infamously wielded by Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Minister of Propaganda during the Nazi era, the term’s origins reach back to the 1800s. Once exclusive to the ideological fringes, the media skepticism it represents has recently established itself in the political mainstream.

A study conducted by the Dortmund-based Forsa Institute showed that 44 percent of respondents believed that the media either partially or wholly lies to the German public.

Cristina Gonzales, an American with a background in radio journalism, has been studying this phenomenon since fall 2015. Sipping a cappuccino in one of central Berlin’s historic cobblestoned courtyards, she says that even before the refugee crisis reached its peak, usage of the term “lying-press” was on the rise.

“In 2014, Lügenpresse was named the un-word of the year in German,” Gonzales said, suppressing a smile as she explained that linguists in Germany award this title to the most offensive, new or recently popularized term every year.

Gonzales’ findings, which she presented in May at the American Academy in Berlin, indicate that the history of media manipulation in Germany has contributed significantly to media skepticism today.

During the Nazi era, the National Socialist propaganda ministry directly controlled the media. After World War II, American and British forces took over management of West Germany’s media outlets before handing over the reins to the Germans in 1949. On the east side of the Berlin Wall, Soviets continued the legacy of suppression and manipulation until the collapse of the German Democratic Republic in 1990.

Because of this history of media control, Gonzales said she believes many Germans are suspicious of close relationships between the media and the government. At the same time, they receive most of their news from television, which is dominated by two public broadcasting services: ARD and ZDF. Unlike American public broadcasters like PBS, which are funded primarily through donations, these channels follow the BBC model and are largely financed by a mandatory fee of $20 per month.

In her research, Gonzales often came across accusations that ARD and ZDF are producing left-of-center programming.

“In my opinion, this concept of one-sided coverage is somewhat accurate,” she said, adding that studies show those drawn to journalism tend to be liberal, whether in Germany or the U.S. Few agree with the positions of populist movements like Pegida, or share the concerns of the right.

Thomas Fuhrmann, the editor of ZDF’s popular morning news program Morgenmagazin, argues that personal political orientation plays little role in his journalistic practice.

“I can distinguish between what I’m doing as a citizen of this country and what I’m doing as a professional,” he said. Media skeptics disagree with his assessment, and their criticism often takes a nasty or even violent tone.

***

BärGIDA demonstrators express dissatisfaction with Angela Merkel's liberal refugee acceptance policies. Approximately sixty protesters took part in the 72nd BärGIDA rally in Berlin's Washingtonplatz in early June. PHOTO BY ADAM MCCAW

BärGIDA demonstrators express dissatisfaction with Angela Merkel’s liberal refugee acceptance policies. Approximately sixty protesters took part in the 72nd BärGIDA rally in Berlin’s Washingtonplatz in early June. PHOTO BY ADAM MCCAW

Produced in an imposing office building in the center of Berlin, Morgenmagazin features a mix of news and entertainment, comparable to ABC’s Good Morning America. Front and center are Fuhrmann’s two anchors, Dunja Hayali and Mitri Sirin, whose parents immigrated from Iraq and Syria, respectively. Hayali has received overwhelming amounts of disturbing, and often threatening hate mail.

“I will pray every day that you die,” wrote one of her less vulgar critics.

Fuhrmann’s eyes light up in anger when the conversation turns to the insults against his team.

For the editor, much of what comes out of right field amounts to “prejudiced conspiracy theories.” Still, he says, “we have to show what is happening, and if something is not working.” He cites a 12-part series on the integration of refugees in the small town of Templin as an example for what he considers his program’s multidimensional coverage of the issue.

In one instance, Fuhrmann said, 12 refugees were offered internships in Templin but after just one day nine had already dropped out of the program. The ZDF team reported the information, despite the recognition that it might perpetuate negative assumptions about the work ethic of refugees.

“It might harm the cause of integration, but it’s not our job to always calculate whether it harms of not,” Fuhrmann said.

In an uncommon gesture for the German media, Morgenmagazin has also devoted considerable resources to give Merkel’s opponents a voice in the debate. Earlier this year, Hayali won the prestigious Golden Camera award for “Best Information” in recognition of a piece interviewing anti-immigrant demonstrators in East Germany.

But while Hayali’s work has encouraged a dialogue with citizens on the right side of the political spectrum, Fuhrmann admits that the German media’s portrayal of the refugee situation has not been an unmitigated success.

***

The dysfunction of the German media became clear on Dec.. 31, 2015 when holiday revelers gathered before the iconic cathedral of Cologne to usher in the New Year.

Jubilation abruptly turned to chaos when hundreds of women were sexually assaulted and robbed amidst the holiday mayhem. The perpetrators were primarily migrants of North African descent, a politically significant fact considering many Germans’ uncertainty about the future of refugee integration.

What followed seemed to be an across-the-board failure of German journalists to report the news accurately, completely and in a timely fashion. For several days, ZDF’s primary news program failed to even mention the events.

“My colleagues in Mainz argued that we needed more time, which was just the wrong decision,” Fuhrmann said.

When the police finally released the ethnicity of the attackers, many Germans, already skeptical of public broadcast media, became convinced that ARD and ZDF newsrooms had intentionally concealed information about the identities of the perpetrators.

Deborah Cole, an American journalist with the AFP wire service in Berlin, said she believes the events in Cologne forced Germans to reevaluate their trust in the media.

“Everyone was able to see what they wanted to in this story,” Cole said. “And the skeptics were able to say ‘you see, this really proves everything we’ve been saying all along.’”

Already, popular support for Merkel’s open-border policies had waned. “That night in Cologne the dream died,” Cole said. The German government’s policy on refugees began to shift, and a controversial new political party gained momentum in the polls.

***

In an unassuming, apartment-style building far from the offices of Germany’s public broadcasters, Ronald Gläser sits in the conference room of Junge Freiheit, a niche newspaper of the far-right. He is a vocal leader of a new, right-wing populist party, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).

Since the attacks in Cologne, Gläser’s party has experienced a drastic increase in popular support, evident in their strong showings in three state elections in March.

Like many right-wing politicians, the 43-year-old journalist sharply criticizes media coverage of what happened on New Year’s Eve.

“The media tried for three or four days to sweep it under the rug,” he said.

In his view, the mainstream German news did not begin reporting about everything until after online reports brought the issue to the political forefront.

As a journalist himself, Gläser’s understanding of media practice is slightly more nuanced than that of others in his political camp.

While reporting for Junge Freiheit, Gläser said that at least once a month he begins research on a story that turns out to be based in rumor or utterly false. Gläser maintains that these stories are never published.

“Every journalist has the problem that they produce biased things,” he said. “Everyone makes mistakes, but our assumption is, of course, that our colleagues in the Lügenpresse consistently report falsehoods.”

Gläser is unapologetic when it comes to his racist convictions. He believes that if an open-border policy is pursued for the next 50 years, Germany will become “a third-world country,” and one that’s unrecognizable.

He cites France, which, due to its colonial history, already counts, a large number of North Africans among its population. “[North Africans] are, as a result of their cultural heritage, not as successful and capable as us white, middle Europeans,” he said. “We don’t want to see this in Germany.”

Do these convictions make individuals with anti-foreigner sentiments like Gläser neo-Nazis? One expert on right-wing extremism who has been fighting racism for years says no.

***

Jonas Frykman’s institution, the Aktionsbündnis Brandenburg, is a nonpartisan organization devoted to combating violent extremism. Frykman has been studying the relationship between the media and the right wing since 2009.

“[There are] problems with how leaders of the racist movement are portrayed,” Frykman said, explaining that employees of the Aktionsbündnis Brandenburg only refer to people as neo-Nazis if they directly affiliate themselves with the National Socialism of Germany’s “Third Reich.” Others are more appropriately referred to as racists or xenophobes.

Because Nazism is so heavily stigmatized in modern German culture, many right-wing individuals, even those with more obvious ties to National Socialism than Gläser, are deeply offended by the label of neo-Nazi.

One significant factor contributing to media distrust among the political right is, therefore, the media’s misuse of terms associated with Germany’s Nazi past. Journalists who ostracize right-wing politicians and protesters with loaded characterizations are likely to be labeled as members of the “lying press,” thereby perpetuating media skepticism.

***

Once the speeches end, Bärgida demonstrators parade down shaded Invalidenstrasse in the Mitte district of Berlin. Nationalistic rap music is blaring from car speakers while passersby gawk at the spectacle.

Though prone to generalization, racial stereotyping and conspiracy theories, Bärgida and their AfD allies have made their mark by successfully pinpointing flaws in the German media system, and using these shortcomings to their political advantage.

The German media has not been completely transparent in its coverage of the refugee crisis, and media skepticism is a product of this reality. Almost a year after refugees started pouring into Germany, journalists still struggle with covering all sides of the debate.

Ian Strahn is a reporter for “Missoula to Berlin,” a project of the University of Montana School of Journalism. Visit missoulatoberlin.atavist.com to read more about the project.