Germany: ECPMF works with police and trade union to prevent attacks on journalists

by Jane Whyatt, research by Martin Hoffmann

Attacks and verbal abuse against journalists and camera crews have forced some editors to hire private security guards when covering the regular weekly marches by right-wing anti-immigration groups and antifascist counter-demonstrations. Some journalists even refuse to cover the protests, as we reported in the ECPMF Germany fact-finding mission.

Matthias Meisner_900 Matthias Meisner, editor at Der Tagesspiel, discussed Pegida and other matters with ECPMF's Jane Whyatt and the Leipzig police chief at the annual DJV Sachsen meeting. (Photo: ECPMF)

More than thirty incidents have been reported to ECPMF through our Reporting Point and displayed on our storymap. But ECPMF is not only documenting the violence: We are also working with police and the German journalists’ union DJV to calm the situation.

At the annual meeting of the Saxony DJV region in Mittweida on 9 April, ECPMF's Jane Whyatt debated the problem with Matthias Meisner, editor of Der Tagesspiegel, a Berlin-based daily newspaper, and Leipzig police chief Bernd Merbitz.

At the discussion, Meisner told his colleagues how he had been personally named, with other journalists, at Pegida demonstrations and had therefore taken the precaution of removing his phone number from publicly available lists. He explained that the threats to journalists come in various forms, many of them online.

Meisner commented that the frequency and regularity of the demonstrations, the attacks on refugees’ accommodation (more than 200 in 2015) and the hate mail and abuse directed at reporters all combine to have a long-term effect.

Bernd Merbitz, Leipzig police chief, explained that the local police are cooperating with the ECPMF to provide advanced training for officers who work at the Monday demonstrations of Legida. They will learn about ways to balance press freedom with freedom of expression for all citizens, and journalists’ legal rights and responsibilities.

Factbox: Pegida and AfD

Pegida (Dresden) and its local branches Legida (Leipzig), Bärgida (Berlin) and other "gida" groups are not political parties but rather populist movements. The name is an acronym from the German words "Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes" (European patriots protecting the West from Islamisation). Since October 2014, they have been organising regular demonstrations on Mondays which they call "evening walks".

The political party "Alternative für Deutschland" (AfD, Alternative for Germany) is closely associated with this populist movement, as the party is also considered to be Euro-sceptic and takes a strong stance against migration. In addition, AfD politicians are often present at Pegida events.

Their political strength was indicated by the March 2016 regional elections in three German regions (Bundesländer), where the AfD came second in one region and increased its share of the vote in all of them.

The AfD is also hostile to journalists, and has expelled from its meetings Andrea Roepke, a critical reporter who has covered right-wing affairs for many years. The party’s latest move is to open talks about co-operation with the French Front National, led by Marine LePen.

However, many supporters of Pegida and its branches prefer direct democracy and are critical towards all "established party elites" – which also includes the AfD.

Atmosphere of intimidation

In response to a point made by ECPMF’s Jane Whyatt, Merbitz agreed that at future demonstrations he would give orders for helmets to be worn only when the police are in danger from stones, bottles or fireworks being thrown by protestors. Whyatt commented that the sight of large numbers of riot police wearing helmets creates an atmosphere of intimidation, and she welcomed the move.

Merbitz himself has been criticised by right-wing groups for his statement that there was a "pogrom mood" in February 2016 following a number of attacks on buildings that were being prepared as hostels for new refugees. Legida has also accused the Leipzig police chief, from its podium on the street, of being "blind in the left eye" – in other words, seeking to put all the blame for violence and criminal damage on right-wingers even though some ultra-left "Antifa" groups have also been involved.

"Lying press" denounced

The three experts discussed the term "lying press" ("Lügenpresse", the accusation that German mainstream media are biased in their reporting and fail to tell the truth to the public), which right-wing activists use to try to justify their physical and verbal violence. Whyatt cited the MDR television initiative in which reporter Danko Handrick invited three Pegida supporters to spend a day with him in the newsroom, observing how he thoroughly checks and verifies all his research and helping him to create the final report that was televised. They agreed that those three people were convinced that the "lying press" slogan is itself a lie. But the vast majority of right-wingers still believe it, and regularly chant it at demonstrations, targeting the reporters at the scene with other verbal abuse and gestures, too.

One reporter who was physically and verbally attacked at a Leipzig demonstration is Ine Dippman, MDR radio reporter and elected regional chair of the Saxony journalists' union DJV. Interviewed in Mittweida after the discussion, she told ECPMF what happened to her:

I was covering the demonstration and tried to take a picture of a banner that appeared behind the speaker on the platform, Lutz Bachmann. It read 'Rapefugees not welcome'. Then a woman knocked my phone away and hit me across the face."

After trying, unsuccessfully, to report the attack to the police in person, she made an online complaint which was investigated over a week later. "I was furious", she said. But this has not affected her willingness to cover the demonstrations – she just stays close to colleagues and her employer MDR has decided to hire private security guards for covering events where reporters and camera crews may be assaulted.

European perspective

Asked whether the problem is mostly centred on Saxony, the panellists had different responses. ECPMF’s Jane Whyatt replied that elsewhere in Europe, while there are right-wing and anti-immigration movements, the attacks on journalists are fewer. Most journalists are under pressure from other forces such as the mafia, media owners or repressive governments. Meisner thought that East Germany, with its recent history of communist rule (1945-89) may be a special case. Merbitz noted that Saxony is getting a reputation for xenophobia that could damage trade and tourism. The example was cited of the YouTube video showing a bus load of newly arrived refugees being harassed:

Pegida speaks out

Saxony region President Stanislaw Tillich is himself trying to open a dialogue with Pegida to ensure that the movement’s concerns are being met, and to urge its leaders to restrain the violent elements.

Pegida leader "Lange from Roßwein", who would not give his full name but who spoke for more than 40 minutes at the last Leipzig demonstration, told ECPMF why he does not trust the media:

This has nothing to do with racism, as they report. My brother has married a Frenchwoman, she has Algerian roots, another family member has married a Spaniard. I have loads of foreign friends. This is not about racism or hating foreigners. I was never in a demonstration of the NPD (extreme right-wing party) or anything. This is about the economic nonsense of it. If we have a red-green coalition, why haven’t they given us socialism, like in the German Democratic Republic? There is socialism for a few, but not for all. There is a problem in the system."

ECPMF continues its mission to promote dialogue between everyone involved in the reporting of anti-immigration views. Anyone who has experienced violence or abuse is encouraged to contact us through our confidential Reporting Point. There is also a special Reporting Point for women, which is monitored and answered only by female members of ECPMF staff.

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