Freedom of the Press
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Media in Germany are largely free and robust, and offer a wide variety of information and viewpoints. State and nonstate actors generally respect protections for press freedom. While the media landscape remained generally stable in 2015, there was significant alarm about acts of intimidation and violence against media houses and professionals.
- A domestic data retention law requiring companies to store user data for a minimum of ten weeks came into effect in December.
- The federal prosecutor’s office pursued treason charges against two journalists in connection to their publication of leaked government documents, but dropped the case in August amid significant domestic and international pressure.
- In December, the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) reported that at least 29 journalists were physically attacked by right-wing actors in 2015, particularly while covering demonstrations.
- At year’s end, investigations and legal proceedings were ongoing in at least two major cases of retaliatory violence: a suspected arson attack against the Hamburger Morgenpost offices in January and an assault against Tagesspiegel columnist Helmut Schümann in October.
Legal Environment: 6 / 30
The German constitution and basic laws guarantee freedoms of expression and the press, but there are provisions banning hate speech, Holocaust denial, and Nazi propaganda. Although defamation and insult are criminal offenses, no journalists were convicted on such charges in 2015. An antiterrorism law that took effect in 2009 permits police to conduct remote and secret searches of computers, telephone lines, and homes of suspected terrorists. Journalists continue to be concerned that this law can limit their ability to keep sources confidential.
In 2014, the European Court of Justice overturned a controversial European Union (EU) directive on data retention that had required telecommunications companies and internet service providers (ISPs) to store user data for a minimum of six months. Germany’s Constitutional Court had rejected enforcement of the directive in the country, but the Bundestag approved separate domestic data retention legislation in October 2015, requiring companies to store user data for at least ten weeks. The law came into effect in December, giving companies 18 months to comply. The law progressed through the legislature with little debate, and led to particular concerns due to a provision criminalizing the handling of stolen data. Media and transparency watchdogs warned that this provision could be used to deter or intimidate whistleblowers, noting that Germany’s overall legal framework for whistleblower protection remains insufficient.
Freedom of information (FOI) legislation, in effect since 2006, mandates that information held by public authorities should be open and available, but it contains numerous exceptions. Government agencies must process requests within a month, and can give information verbally, electronically, or in writing. Although basic information is provided free of charge, there are fees for certain types of requests, varying by agency and state and reaching as high as €2,000 ($2,200) in rare cases. Watchdogs have criticized these fees, noting that agencies can set fees arbitrarily and use them to restrict access to information. Use of the law overall remains limited, hampered by the weakness of supporting legislation and infrastructure at the state level. In 2011, a coalition of freedom of information organizations launched a website, Frag den Staat, to ease the process of submitting requests and to encourage the exercise of the right to information. Since its inception, the site has processed some 7,500 information requests. In 2015, the same coalition launched Verklag den Staat, a website aimed at helping individuals legally dispute denials of information requests.
Political Environment: 10 / 40 (↓2)
The German media generally enjoy editorial independence. Although there are no prepublication censorship regulations, the German courts and other authorities have attempted to remove web content on grounds of defamation, privacy, security, and hate speech in the past, according to Google’s Transparency Report. In November 2015, the German Federal Court issued a verdict allowing for websites to be blocked if they contribute to grave copyright violations.
The issue of online hate speech was the focus of heated public debate in 2015, particularly in the context of the European refugee crisis. During the year, senior politicians, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, publicly called for Facebook, Google, and Twitter to delete comments and posts that incite hatred. The companies agreed to comply in December, following considerable government pressure. In November, prosecutors in Hamburg initiated an investigation into Facebook’s Germany-based European manager for failure to remove hate speech from the platform.
There were some reports of self-censorship in 2015. In March, there were revelations that the regional public service broadcaster WDR had deleted an episode of the popular political talk show Hart aber Fair from its online archive due to criticism by gender rights advocates. In August, local media reported that the public broadcaster ZDF had considered withholding an episode of Aktenzeichen XY due to concerns that its focus, a criminal case involving a black suspect, would encourage racial prejudice.
In an exceptional case, the federal prosecutor’s office attempted to prosecute two journalists from Netzpolitik.org, a website reporting on digital rights and policies, for treason. In May, the office began investigating the journalists and their anonymous sources in connection to two articles about government surveillance, published on Netzpolitik.org in February and April, that contained internal documents from Germany’s internal security agency. The case marked the first time since 1962 that media professionals in Germany were accused of treason. The investigation became public in July, causing an outcry from domestic and international journalists and civil society organizations. Although the prosecutor’s office dropped the case in August, the affair was nevertheless seen as an attempt to intimidate journalists, particularly as key ministries and the chancellery had been aware of the investigation. Shortly after the case was closed, the Ministry of Justice forced the prosecutor general into early retirement.
Separately, in June, German authorities temporarily detained Al-Jazeera correspondent and Egyptian national Ahmed Mansour, acting upon a request by the Egyptian government for his extradition. Domestic and international watchdogs decried the move, noting that Mansour—who faced an in-absentia conviction in Egypt connected to his participation in the country’s 2011 protests—would not be guaranteed fair treatment in the Egyptian justice system. German prosecutors quickly reversed their position and released Mansour within two days.
Although state authorities do not engage in physical harassment and intimidation of journalists, there have been reports of increasing violence by right-wing groups, many of whom encourage perceptions of German media as the “Lügenpresse,” or the “lying press.” In a report released in December 2015, the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) noted that at least 29 journalists were physically attacked by right-wing actors in 2015, particularly when covering demonstrations. ECPMF reported that the highest concentration of attacks occurred in Saxony. The controversial Patriotic Europeans Against Islamization of the West (PEGIDA) movement maintains its base in the state’s capital, Dresden, and has held weekly demonstrations there since its founding in 2014.
Retaliatory attacks were part of increased violence toward media houses and professionals in 2015. In January, the offices of the Hamburger Morgenpost daily were subjected to a suspected arson attack. Prosecutors charged four suspects in November, and the case was ongoing at year’s end. The Hamburger Morgenpost, along with other domestic media, reported that the case could be tied to its reprinting of controversial cartoons of the prophet Mohammad published by the French magazine Charlie Hebdo; the cartoons were at the center of a terrorist attack on the magazine earlier in January. Separately, in October, an unknown assailant attacked Tagesspiegel columnist Helmut Schümann in Berlin, making reference to his profession and political views. Schümann claimed that the attack was likely connected to his recent column on the anti-immigration views of PEGIDA and the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.
Economic Environment: 4 / 30
Germany has one of the most successful and vibrant media environments in Europe. There are more than 300 daily and over 20 weekly newspapers. While local and regional newspapers have the greatest influence, there are seven major nationally distributed titles, in addition to a number of smaller publications that circulate nationally. Germany is host to the biggest newspaper market in Europe, and the increasing accessibility of the internet—which 88 percent of the population accessed in 2015—has facilitated the availability of investigative journalism and diverse views. Nearly two-thirds of Germans continue to read newspapers regularly, and many print publications have successfully adapted paywalls to maintain revenue. Nevertheless, financial strains have had an impact on the resources and capacity of many papers. In 2012, the Financial Times Deutschland went out of business. The owners of another national daily, the left-leaning Frankfurter Rundschau, announced bankruptcy in 2012 but was jointly purchased by the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and a media house the following year, continuing publication.
In 2012, the German parliament passed an amendment to the Act Against Restraints on Competition in an attempt to ease mergers of print outlets. The amendment stipulates that smaller transactions between press companies will not be subject to merger control. Although advocacy groups argued that the new rules could harm media diversity, there has been no significant evidence to this end.
Germany’s television market is among the most competitive in Europe, and more than 90 percent of households have cable or satellite television. There are nine regional public-service broadcasters for the country’s 16 states, plus the national public-service channels ARD and ZDF; two public radio stations operate nationally. All of these outlets are financed primarily by license fees and managed by independent bodies. Several private broadcast outlets also operate throughout the country, which is home to some of the world’s largest media conglomerates.
In 2015, in collaboration with the German Press Council, a group of major German corporations adopted a code on media relations that compels signatories to respect media independence and maintain clearer distinctions between advertising and independent journalism.