Press freedom violations at the G20 summit: "Journalists are reporters, not rioters"

By Sophie Albers Ben Chamo, ECPMF staff

Journalists and their organisations condemn severe press freedom violations at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. The ECPMF is counting the cost.

G20 summit, Hamburg Police and protesters at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany

The G20 summit is over, and what most people remember, even more than world leaders seeking compromises, is a violent mob trashing Hamburg’s streets. For media freedom watchdogs however this summit gives reasons to be alarmed.

At the start, on 7th July, the German journalists’ association (DJV) issued an official warning to journalists covering the G20 summit: “Take good care of yourself - even more than usual”, said DJV president Frank Überall. Because “according to information received by the DJV, neither violent protesters nor security forces show consideration for reporters, photographers or camera crews.”

Obviously officially approved press accreditations were withdrawn by officers of the Federal Criminal Police Office, who did not give any precise reason. There were accounts of journalists being insulted and beaten by police officers as well.

Withdrawn accreditations and threats of violence

The DJV and the German Journalists’ Union (DJU) voiced their strong complaints to the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA). “It’s legally highly questionable, how the BKA dealt with the accreditations,” said Cornelia Hass, chairwoman of the German Journalists’s Union (DJU). Several members had supposedly contacted the DJU since Friday, because their accreditation had been withdrawn. Allegedly amongst others reporters of the German newspapers “taz”, “Junge Welt”, “Weser Kurier” and “Analyse&Kritik” were stripped of their papers, with the identical justification of “safety-related findings”. “One cannot help but think this happened for the reason to prevent disagreeable media coverage”, says Hass. “This procedure defies our democratic principles, therefore we filed an objection with the authorities.” This happened together with the DJV, who was quoted calling the decisions to withdraw press accreditations “entirely arbitrary". "Journalists are rapporteurs, not rioters,” says Überall. However the actual number of affected journalists is unknown, the DJV answered an enquiry by the ECPMF.

Moreover the daily “taz” published a disturbing dialogue between a female journalist and a policeman that had allegedly taken place, where the woman is threatened and insulted.

Other journalists reported being threatend with violence while others supposedly were beaten. There are also accounts of journalists being attacked by protesters.

On Monday the DJV sent out an open letter, , signed by its federal chairman Frank Überall, to the president of the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), demanding an explanation for the treatment of members of the press at the summit. “The incidents, especially the treatment of journalists by the action forces, raise pressing questions”, he wrote. “Repeatedly, journalists fell victim to physical violence by policemen.” He quotes the use of ”pepper spray” and “truncheons”. Press accreditations were ignored, journalists were badly insulted. “How do you explain this approach?,” Überall asks. And “has the special role of the media been pointed out to the policemen, after all?”

"Police officers still consider journalists a threat"

“Police violence, like deliberately deploying truncheons against certain journalists during the G20 summit, seems to me utterly disproportionate”, says ECPMF researcher Martin Hoffmann, who just recently published a study about violence against journalists in Germany. Nevertheless, he continues, this outburst of violence doesn’t show a new quality of police violence against journalists. " Rather it shows that some police officers still consider journalists a threat, and don’t see themselves able to protect the fundamental rights of individuals.” Police forces very often have rudimentary knowledge about journalists’ rights, Hoffmann adds. “Those attacks show again the necessity of a solid training for police officers about press rights as well as the right of assembly: to protect the media against political extremists but also against the violence of some police.”

A government spokesperson told the German public channel ARD ("ARD-faktenfinder") about the treatment of journalists: "Actually in some cases press accreditations have not been granted, or rather have subsequently been withdrawn. The decision to do so was made collectively by the Federal Press Office (Bundespresseamt), the BKA and the Federal Ministry of the Interior (BMI). Basically, accreditations are handled in a two-stage process: first of all there is the verification that the person is actually a journalist, followed otherwise by an event-appropriate safety check, implemented by the BKA. In the current problematic cases safety objections were raised consistently, based on the findings of the security authorities."

Update: German government spokesman Steffen Seibert confirmed, that during the G20 summit 32 journalist accreditations were subsequently reviewed, and nine were withdrawn. The further 23 on the list did not show up.