German media’s role in reporting corruption

German media’s role in reporting corruption

Author: Sara Bundtzen

The role of the media is critical in reporting corruption and raising public awareness. The performance of the media is, however, dependent on a number of political, economic and legal aspects: media freedom of expression, access to information, ownership, competition, outreach and credibility are some of the key factors that have significant influence. The following article deals with the media and press freedom in reporting corruption in Germany.

German media landscape is shaped by a history of crucial events that still have great impact on current debates. Some of the first newspapers started roughly 400 years ago and became an essential source of information for the public. However, during the years of Nazi-Germany, mass media became a tool of totalitarianism. The Nazi Propaganda Ministry, directed by Joseph Goebbels, took control of all forms of communication in Germany: newspapers, magazines, books, public meetings as well as art, music, movies, and radio.

As a result of Nazi influence on the media, post-war media focused on developing principles of press freedom as promoted by the Basic Law (Constitution) of 1949. Article 5 of the Constitution guarantees media freedom and freedom of expression: “Every person shall have the right freely to express and disseminate his opinions in speech, writing and pictures, and to inform himself without hindrance from generally accessible sources. Freedom of the press and freedom of reporting by means of broadcasts and films shall be guaranteed. There shall be no censorship.” The effectiveness of media’s role in reporting corruption is dependent such legislation to enable access to information. However, it was not until 1990 that both West and East Germany, enjoyed press freedom.

To date, German print media is characterised by a large number of titles. In 2016, the number of daily newspapers totals 344 -out of which 329 are local and regional- with a circulation of 16, 08 million, 20 weekly newspapers with a circulation of 1, 7 million and 7 Sunday newspapers with a circulation of 2, 7 million.

Germany has one of the highest newspaper densities in Europe. Generally, 86% of the readers are interested in local and regional reports, followed by news coverage on domestic politics (67%) and foreign politics (55%). It is worth taking into consideration that 92% of the German population describe regional newspapers as “credible”, 85% as “objective” and 73% believe regional newspapers discover abuses.    

In recent years, however, several events have occurred that have challenged the adequate coverage of corruption and other misconduct. For instance, in July 2015, revelations from WikiLeaks indicated that American intelligence services operated surveillance against the weekly news magazine Der Spiegel that is known for its investigative journalism. Nonetheless, Chancellery officials did not contact any of the people in question. They did not contact members of the German Bundestag sitting on the Parliamentary Control Panel that is responsible for oversight of the intelligence services. The magazine had to file a complaint with the Federal Public Prosecutor. Later, research conducted by Der Spiegel determined the existence of CIA and NSA files filled with memos referring to the work of the magazine. Additional reports proved that – as far back as 2013 – the German government was in a position to suspect the great extent to which the United States was spying on an ally. This case places a huge question mark over the notion of a free press in Germany, especially after the ruling of Germany’s highest court in 2007 that upholds press freedom as “constituent part of a free and democratic order.” At that time, the court held that “reporting could no longer be regarded free if it entails a risk that journalists will be spied on during their reporting and that the federal government will be informed of the people they speak to”. Despite the series of affronts upon Germany by US intelligence agencies, the German government continues to adopt a “special” relationship with its partners in America.

Another situation occurred in October 2015, when criminal charges from domestic secret service against two journalists at netzpolitig.org, a German blog on digital rights and digital culture. This caused huge political outrage concerning freedom of speech. The journalists were accused of treason and leaking state secrets. Netzpolitik.org called the accusations “an attempt to intimidate” and a “disgrace for a country ranked 12th in the ranking of the freedom of the press”.

Following a great public backing of netzpolitik.org and an assessment of the justice department, it was concluded that the blog did not leak state secrets. In the end, the Justice Minister, Heiko Maas, dismissed chief prosecutor Harald Range. However, following an inquiry of the left-wing opposition party DIE LINKE, information confirmed that members of the German government as well as Chancellor Angela Merkel herself knew about the investigations all along. The two accused journalists now hope that “the case motivates authorities to improve protection for whistle-blowers in Germany”. In addition to these events, the German Bundestag had passed a reform that confirms further surveillance authority for the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution. Accordingly, federal and state authorities shall improve their co-operation while managing the use of paid informants who regularly report to the security agency. Data protection is a widely discussed topic in Germany keeping in mind the abuses inflicted by the Nazi dictatorship and the former communist regime in East Germany.

Finally, a third case shows how Der Spiegel continued to investigate and disclose cases of corruption. The same year as the NSA scandal, the magazine made public accusations of corruption during the 2006 World Cup. According to Spiegel information, the German Football Association (DFB) created a slush fund of 6.7m euro to bribe officials of the world football’s governing body to vote for Germany’s 2006 World Cup bid. At once, the case sparked a fiery media debate on the issue of corruption in football. In the following weeks, the president of the German Football Association, Wolfgang Niersbach, resigned over the affair. Later, the national newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung as well as the public broadcaster NDR and WDR published information about an attempted cover-up of documents and clues hinting at corruption in connection with the hosting of the 2006 World Cup.

Summing up, the situation of media freedom in Germany is surely superior to the status quo in many other parts of the world. There is a broad scope of media platforms to discuss, analyse and publish reports on corruption. Nevertheless, as certain incidents show, the constitutionally protected right of free speech and free press has to be defended against foreign as well as domestic intelligence agencies that legitimize their intentions on the grounds of counter-terrorism and national security. The right freely to express yourself is a fundamental value of democracy. Free speech is a human right and not debatable.  

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