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Monday, 10 August 2015

Strangling the Web – Freedom of the Press in Germany endangered?



Two weeks ago, German state prosecution initiated an accusation probe against the blog Netzpolitik.org. Its main bloggers and founder Markus Beckedahl and André Meister were accused for treason after having published classified documents on the notorious NSA observation scandal which got to them through a still unknown leak. The federal state prosecutor Harald Range justified the accusation with the argument that “internal and classified papers should not become public”.

In a statement after the accusation has been submitted, Beckedahl pointed out that this was an “intimidation attempt” by the constitutional prosecution, though the NSA documents had already been posted in January this year. The reactions in German media were, almost unanimously, supportive for the bloggers – from mainstream media and even from policy makers.


The power of media challenged
It is very rare that media in post war Germany have to face state intervention, and if there is any intervention whatsoever – no matter how insignificant – media, and specifically social media reacts almost instantly. Today’s resistance against the prosecution is not the first time that the German public resist against a government attempt to influence media, the first most prominent case in post-war Germany actually occurred in October 1962. Back then, the editor in chief of the weekly Spiegel magazine, Rudolf Augstein, and editors darunter Conrad Ahlers, Claus Jacobi und Johannes K. Engel were arrested for treason, after having published a critical article about the non-readiness of defence forces in Germany. The reactions were massive, mass demonstrations in favour of the editorsoccured all over Germany fearing that West Germany would choose a path of restricting freedom of the press – the dark shadows of the Third Reich were still very present in the minds of the people. The German government quickly gave in and released the editors and the Spiegel magazine ever since is pretty much “untouchable”, even today – marking a benchmark for free journalism in Germany. The case, however, was not closed until May 1965.

But if asking about independence and freedom of the press, as it is laid down in the constitution of any democratically legitimated country, it is necessary to ask the question, to which extend someone can describe the press as “free” in this sense. Strictly spoken, freedom of the press means nothing else but independence from any external influence or censoring mechanism, no matter to which extend. That means that press should not be biased in favour or against any political ideology, nor should any state authority attempt to influence media in any way. Media coverage should be objective at any given time and so should be journalists. In Germany, the press is considered as the so called “fourth power” of the state – an independent entity to control the government and to maintain the democratic character of the political system.
Reality, however, proves a rather different image and influencing media is almost omnipresent, at least for mainstream and public media.


Shrining Independent Media to the Blogger’s Sphere
Since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis we were able to witness a strong tendency of biased media coverage. Certainly it is nothing new, at any given moment in history of society and politics, media was used as propaganda tool to spread the government’s position with forged or non-forged information, and demonising the “enemy”. Free or independent press was notoriously subject to official censorship and whoever dared to write something critical about the governing elites had to face sanctions or imprisonment – or even worse.

But with the Ukraine crisis now dragging on for more than a year and the tensions between East and West rising, media tends to take yet another “black and white” coverage. Even though it is apparent that the media in Russia is predominantly state controlled and there are only limited free or independent media channels. In particular, free media has retreated to the blogger scene, but even here they are struggling due to state controlled registration obligation and high fees to run blogs – unaffordable for many bloggers.

Even though the media is considered free in Germany, the blogger scene is growing and has to be seen as a new independent source for information and news in the web – apart from the established news and publishing organizations. Public media in Germany has an international reputation for being one of the most objective news coverage, though it is not entirely free from political influence. Since all public broadcasting stations (television, radio and online content) are funded through the state and through a broadcasting “tax” paid by every household, the leading political parties CDU and SPD have high ranked party members sitting in the board of directors of the main broadcasting organizations, not only co-deciding on the contents to be reported (including party biased positions), but also deciding on editors in chief and journalists. In essence, even the presumably free public media is not entirely free in a classic sense, for that, the political parties would need to retreat from the organizations boards.

The number of independent blogs is growing and as a result, the state cannot fully control the spread or all the content of all independent blogs. By time, some blogs – like Netzpolitik.org – obtain a wide public attention and can evolve into a new source for independent information.


Defending a Constitutional Right
Earlier today, German state prosecution has announced to drop the treason probe against Netzpolitik.org, admitting that the contents published by the blog did not contain any classified information. Nevertheless, blogger Beckehaus already stated that there is a lot of clarification to be done to explain why he and his colleague Meister were subjects for surveillance by the federal state prosecution. Even though federal state prosecutor Harald Range has been dismissed by Minister of Justice Heiko Maas last week – as a pretext to the withdrawal of the treason probe this week –, the question must be asked if from now on, every blogger is a legitimate target to prosecution in the event of publishing “presumably classified information”; and in a further step if freedom of the press as a whole in endangered in Germany.

Freedom of the press is manifested in article 5 of the German constitution, the “Grundgesetz” (“Basic Law”), and journalist associations in Germany strongly opposed the prosecution’s moves against Netzpolitik.org, stating that the freedom of the press is seriously in danger and that the state authorities – including constitutional prosecution and intelligence services – need to be remembered of that. It is still not clear what further political and social consequences this scandal will have in the near future, but rumours are persistent that Minister of Justice Maas might possibly resign from his office. The only good news for Chancellor Angela Merkel is that she might “merkel” the case until the elections in two years’ time; i.e. ignoring and not doing anything until the public has forgotten about it.


Journalism vs. Public Relation vs. Propaganda
George Orwell once said that “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want to be printed. Everything else is public relations.” In a wider sense, we also need to recall Orwell’s words from his novel “1984”: “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength!” His concept of “doublethink”, of believing any governmental propaganda, no matter how contradictory it uses to be, is very present in our time and contemporary mainstream media is very vulnerable to manipulation, probably more than ever before through intensified and expanded intelligence activities and networks.

Let us expand Orwell’s statement a bit further: If someone wants you to write something in a way he wants, that is public relations. If someone forces you to write something you do not want to write and in a way that everyone wants to believe the official line, that is propaganda; and journalism in the end is that what you write and others do not want you to write, no matter how much it bothers them.

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