'Be careful out there' German union warns journalists at demonstrations

by Jane Whyatt

The national head of the German Journalists Union (DJV) Frank Überall has sent a message to all members on 31. August 2018: “Be extra careful when reporting on right-wing demonstrations.” It comes after a TV camera crew was prevented from filming at a demonstration in Dresden and journalists faced abuse in other German cities. 

Be careful out there german union warns journalists Photo by Sachelle Babbar, won third place in the 2017 BJV Press Photo Awards

In the DJV weekly newsletter to the trade union's 35,000 members, Frank Überall warns: 

Journalists reporting on these events must know that they will be regarded as opponents by the right-wing extremists and not as neutral observers. That must also be made clear to the police forces, whose duty it is to facilitate the job of journalists to report on the events. 

In Munich, the Bavarian Journalists Union (regional branch of the DJV) has booked a meeting with the police in the first week of September 2018 after a series of incidents at rallies held by anti-Muslim Pegida and other right-wing anti-immigration groups.

General Secretary of the BJV Dennis Amour told ECPMF: "Munich photographers repeatedly complained that they could not work undisturbed at Pegida rallies. There have been about a dozen such cases. The photographers complained that the police did not adequately protect them from interference by right-wing demonstrators. We as the BJV also observed this behavior several times. However, since our interventions with the police, conditions have actually improved in recent years, as the photographers have confirmed. Recent problems have clouded this positive impression."

Training, training, training

Elsewhere in Germany, Stuttgart police have restricted access to demonstrations for journalists. And in Saxony, where violence has broken out at demonstrations in Dresden and Chemnitz, the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom has publicly called on the police to provide better training for its officers.

ECPMF Managing Director Lutz Kinkel says in the open letter that the police seem unsure about the role of the press: 

This uncertainty is highly dangerous because it can be used by hooligans and enemies of the press to hinder or prevent the work of the journalists. That must not happen under any circumstances. What will help here is: training, training, training. 

It's not a new call. The European Centre for Press and Media Freedom has already made this recommendation and tested out the concept of a training course back in 2016. Since it was founded in 2015, the ECPMF has been observing, collecting and verifying violations of press and media freedom in Germany.

Interview with Munich-based photographer

In an exclusive interview with the ECPMF, award-winning photojournalist Sachelle Babbar describes how for four years, starting in 2014, his work has been hampered and he has been targeted for police scrutiny in Bavaria. He has dual UK-US nationality. 

ECPMF: Describe the situation in Munich for journalists covering demonstrations, please..

SB: “Sometimes it can be perfectly normal and sometimes we have a really horrific day where the police are the problem, rather than the right-wing extremists, to be honest. Most of them don’t create problems and it could be possibly because they do know the law. But some are very aggressively anti-journalists and they seem to egg on other police officers to support them. 

What we see in Saxony is a regular occurrence in Munich also. The anti-journalist aggressive behaviour manifests itself differently in different police divisions. The USK are more anti-journalist than the others. They typically also use force, and intimidation like while we are walking towards the demonstration they will walk behind us and try to kick our feet out from underneath us to make us fall. When we turn round they say “You’re getting too close to Pegida”. Running through a crowd they’ll use shoulder-tackles to physically intimidate us.

Q: What about the Bavaria Journalists Union, how are they reacting?

They have been fantastic. When I was accused of “assault” for taking a photo of a Pegida demonstrator, they wrote an open letter to the president of the Munich police, stating that it is the police’s duty to protect the press and press freedom. About a month letter the charge was dropped. The head of Pegida Munich is not a “nobody”, as on the day of my arrest, it was revealed he was under monitoring since 2012 by the Federal Prosecutor for “attempting to build a terrorist group”, which is why documenting him was so important.

Q: How have these incidents affected your ability to do your work as a journalist and your health and well-being?

It’s become very difficult. I have to take a lot of time every time I go out to explain to police that I’m a journalist. When Pegida see me they will walk me to the police and defame me, saying ”This guy’s an anti-fascist photographer”and then I show them my credentials and examples of my work and it works out OK, usually. In other cases the police automatically assume that I’m a “left” or “anti-fascist” photographer but actually I mostly photograph some of the highest politicians in Germany, for example Angela Merkel and Horst Seehofer. They’ve been published on the German government website, in the Wall Street Journal, Spiegel, Süddeutsche Zeitung and other news outlets throughout the world.

Q: What effect do you believe your ethnic origin and nationalities have on the police and Pegida attitudes?

My appearance initially did draw some attention. In one neo-nazi event which they hold each year in Bad Reichenhall to honour a Waffen-SS troop, the police chief at the scene was discussing my ethnic background, how in the United States the police use racial profiling. And I told him I had never been profiled in the USA but in Germany it’s a constant theme! I’ve had comments made to me at demonstrations where they believe I’m Muslim, I’m Arab, Middle Eastern or Turkish and they yell insults at me using words that are commonly used against those people. I guess if they see a person of colour they assume that person is automatically Muslim. Typically it happens during AfD rallies (Alternative For Germany, a right-populist, anti-immigration political party). Those are the worst because a lot of people get away with making negative comments that even Pegida won’t say for fear of getting in trouble. 

Commenting on the allegation of racial profiling, BJV’s Dennis Amour says he was not aware of it, but he is aware of Sachelle Babbar’s case and those of the other photographers.

I am concerned about press freedom, because such actions lead to fears on the part of journalists . This may lead to some sort of self- censorship. That is why it is so important that journalists are protected by the police.

ECPMF has requested a reaction from the Munich Police, Pegida Munich and the AFD and will publish their response to these allegations here.


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