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In recent months attacks on press freedom have been on the rise throughout Germany. There has also been a sharp increase in violence against journalists. Assaults on the media in general have intensified massively in recent years, months and even weeks. This is especially true since the rise of the right-wing AfD and its street fighting organization Pegida. But violence also came with current anti-government rallies against the state regulations to contain the Coronavirus pandemic. During these so-called “hygiene rallies” a mixture of right-wing extremists, Neo-Nazis, tin-foil-hat wearing conspiracy fantasy believers, etc. again and again assaulted the media.
In the former East-German city of Leipzig, on a cold and damp evening of 7 November 2020 everything looked rather ordinary. It was dark but local people came to the rally. They screamed and waved their arms. Bottles became missiles and fireworks exploded. Suddenly, a group of aggressive demonstrators broke through the police line. Right in the middle were newspaper reporters and public broadcast journalists from TV stations.
Some of these media people pressed their backs against a police car which seemed to offer the only protection. But the journalists were surrounded by the unruly crowd. The right-wing mob gathered. The police were watching as the howling pack across the street. Journalists were insulted and called whores and traitors. They were called liars and fake news mongers, just as Donald Trump did for years. The playbook is the same, the country different. Reporters were shoved, spat at, threatened with lethal injuries and the Hitler salute is shown.
These kinds of violence and street level brutalities increasingly occur during rallies organized by Germany’s radical right. Such groups are the self-proclaimed anti-thinkers (perhaps: non-thinkers), a mixture of esoteric believers, tin-foil-hat people, right-wing extremists like the Reichsbürger, conservative family members, religious fundamentalists, the petit-bourgeois middle-class and retirees. Yet there are also extremist leadership cadres of an extreme conservative variety, apparatchiks of right-wing parties, young Neo-Nazis, hooligans, organized right-wing extremists. And they come from all over Germany, united in their hatred of the government’s corona virus measures.
Right in front of the police, numerous media representatives have been violently assaulted. Reporters have been beaten in the face, and attacks on camera equipment and their operators are frequent. There are physical and verbal threats. These occurrences have become rather commonplace. Reporters, microphone in hand, have been beaten to the ground and kicked on the head while lying on the ground.
Among those beaten are multi-award winning freelance journalists. Some have been well0known names who have been writing on Germany’s radical right for years. Many know Germany’s right-wing networks, their organizational setup and their members. They know things few people in Germany are aware of, sometimes even by the police. These victims also know how the right-wing works during rallies, and yet they risk their livelihoods and lives by covering such events.
Forty-three attacks on media representatives were recently listed by Germany’s Union of Journalists (DJU) during just one radical right rally – one single day alone. A union secretary, who witnessed the demonstration, says the violence and threats against journalists have risen to a new height. The aforementioned rally at Leipzig fits into a common trajectory. Violence against journalists has increased exponentially during the course of 2020.
In January 2021, the federal government responded to a parliamentary request from Germany’s small environmental Green Party. Germany’s federal government admitted there had been 252 attacks on journalists during 2020 – officially! This is more than twice as many as in the previous year. Among them were insults, threats, damage to property, assaults, arson and robbery.
One hundred and forty-four of these right-wing attacks came from Germany’s right-wing extremists and a mere 42 from the left. In other words, there were more than three times as many attacks on the media coming from the radical right than the left. Interestingly, much of this violence occurs in the former East-Germany state of Saxony, followed by the city of Berlin and Germany’s most populous state of North Rhine-Westphalia.
Many of Germany’s NGOs are experiencing a rising number of attacks. German Reporters without Borders, for example, counted more violent incidents than ever before. In the meantime, the trade unions of journalists also reports an acceleration of assaults. Ever more, Germany’s radical right uses these hygiene rallies as a cover for their Neo-Nazi activities. This happened recently in West-Germany cities like Kassel, Hannover, Munich and Würzburg but also in the former East-Germany city of Dresden. Wherever there is rally against corona virus measures , journalists are being harassed.
Other statistics, however, help put matters into perspective. In 2020, confidence in the media actually increased. Around two-thirds of Germans consider media reports and the quality of the media to be credible. This is more than at any time since 2015. In that year public pollster Infratest Dimap began to investigate trust in the media on behalf of one of Germany’s largest public broadcast stations, Westdeutscher Rundfunk.
The latest study was conducted in autumn 2020. It revealed record figures. More than 80% of Germans consider public service broadcasting to be very trustworthy. Meanwhile, daily newspapers are rated as credible by 74%. Four out of five respondents agreed that the reporting on the Covid-19 pandemic of public broadcasters is either good or even very good.
To understand this apparent contradiction of violence against journalists, one the one hand, and high ratings of public surveys for their work on the other hand, one has to look more closely at where the violence actually happens. It occurs predominantly at hygiene rallies and on the internet.
In Germany there are people who believe in what Donald Trump calls the “lying press”. The origins of the term reach far back to the 19th century. At that time it was mainly arch-conservative Catholics who wanted to use the term to denounce the liberal, progressives and democratic newspapers and other periodicals that had emerged in the wake of the 1848 Revolution. Even then, the term “lying press” already had an anti-Semitic undertone.
Yet the expression was carried on through World War One. The term “lying Press” experienced new heights of power with the Nazis, when Hitler and with Goebbels kept screaming them out at party rallies, over the radio and in their propaganda journals. Then, with the collapse of the Third Reich, the phrase “lying Press” largely disappeared until recently.
Since the early 2000s, German Neo-Nazis and right-wingers have rediscovered the term, along with the phrase “The Press is the enemy of the people.” And so did Donald J. Trump. In October 2014, hundreds of Neo-Nazis and right-wing hooligans shouted violently, proclaimed themselves street-thugs against salafists and “the press is lying”. However, the term was hardly used by the general population. That is, until January 2015. An analysis of the term’s frequency on Google shows that Internet searches for the words “lying press” has skyrocketed – particularly in the former East-Germany states of Thuringia, Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt. This resurgence in such illiberal and right-wing extremist language marked the moment when right-wing Pegida rallies and their offshoots began using it.
Ex-Neo-Nazi, ex-criminal and Pegida boss Lutz Bachmann – who likes to dress up in Nazi uniform and give the Hitler salute – boasts (most likely falsely) that he had been a “reporter” for Germany’s main right-wing tabloid Bild-Zeitung. Bachmann’s right-wing Pegida Party rejects established media using the term “lying press”. The phrase was written on Pegida posters, splashed on walls and printed on Pegida stickers. The speakers at these rallies that the media were all state-run and thus is spreading lies. This led rather quickly to a more general hatred of journalists.
Today violence against the press comes mainly from the right. About 60% of all attacks on journalists last year were committed by Germany’s Neo-Nazi and AfD groups. Only about 15% came from the left. These are the official figures released by Germany’s federal government. Other surveys point to an even higher proportion of right-wing attacks on the media.
These days, hygiene rallies, anti-asylum protesters, Pegida, AfD, Neo-Nazis, far-right hooligans and similar lunatic crusaders seem to think it’s okay for violent offenders to put themselves at the top the food chain. On the whole, they aren’t sorry for what they do and wouldn’t back down when dishing out violence. This could be seen at virtually every anti-corona-virus rally throughout last year. Germany’s organized rightist mobs mix in with a supposedly innocent middle-class milieu.
Many journalists have been repeatedly threatened by people who move between the inside and the outside of organized Neo-Nazis. A 2019 book called Völkische Landnahme (territorial occupation by race-based settlers) describes far-right hooligans and how deeply they are already operating inside what is called “educated middle-class citizens”. It mixes its ideology with petit-bourgeois middle-class attitudes to establish Germany’s rising right-wing ecosystems.
Out of this political maelstrom, many journalists, especially those carrying on research into right-wing networks, have received hateful and threatening messages. One such packet contained a rotten pig’s head smeared with blood-red paint and a blackmail letter signed The Coup d’état Orchestra. NSU 2.0. The NSU is Germany’s most violent Neo-Nazi death squad, responsible for killing ten people between 2000 and 2007.
The European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) based in the former East-Germany city of Leipzig documents the development of anti-press incidents in Germany. Last year, its research concluded a five-year review which found that attacks on the press are now the norm. It also found that right-wing rallies are the most dangerous places for journalists in Germany.
The study by ECPMF called “enemy journalists” (Feindbild Journalist) shows a new record high in terms of the numbers of right-wing attacks on journalists. It counted 69 attacks in 2020 – a five fold increase compared to the previous year and more than in any year since the survey began six years ago. It found that 71% of attacks occurred during “pandemic related events” – these are the so-called hygiene rallies of Germany’s radical right. The study also counted 31 right-wing attacks coming from a broad alliance of conspiracy believers, Reichsbürger, Neo-Nazis and esoteric conspiracy fantasy people.
The ECPMF was stunned by the force with which a radicalized discourse is taking place leading to the incitement of violence; it is highly visible on the Internet. One journalist described right-wing extremism on the web as, “the pleasure of hatred” and “the lust for hate”. The press is no longer seen as a democratic element in society.
As a result of the digital transformation from print to the Internet, journalists are no longer gatekeepers of careful research and fact-checked information. Everyone can express themselves any way they want on the Internet. Editors no longer decide what is newsworthy and are no longer processing of information for the public.
Instead of vetted information, wild disinformation spreads. Fake news and deliberately produced false news are taking up an increasing share of publicly-uttered opinion in Germany. Things like conspiracy ideologies, conspiracy fantasies, incitement against minorities, rage against the system and the press tend to come along with a glorification redolent of 1930s and 1940s Nazism. This dangerous misinformation reaches more and more people through right-wing chat groups.
And the hate-speech does not stay there. One user in a right-wing chat group of the messenger service Telegram called Conspiracies posted a link to an article by news-website infranken.de. The online portal belongs to the media group Upper Franconia. The article was about a 48-year-old who died of Coronavirus. On Facebook, a user had doubted that the man had actually died of the disease. There are dreadful stories of patients in ICU beds who, while being offered treatment, deny that they have Corvid-19 and refuse medical attention.
Screenshots of these statements are shared in the Telegram group. One particularly loathsome member of the group comments: “TO HELL WITH YOU, YOU WRETCHED SCUMBAGS FROM THE LYING PRESS! TO HELL”. Underneath he posts the address, telephone number and mail address of the editorial office. He wrote, “Let the bomb[ing] begin friends!” (Typesetting error in the original).
This particular right-wing Telegram group has more than 50,000 members. In the days that followed the incident described above, huge loads of calls to the editorial staff of infranken.de came in, mostly abusive calls and hysterical emails. Many were written directly to the editor of infranken.de. This is a small sampling of such vile rhetoric. And there are similar occurrences all over Germany.
These attacks might not signify direct violence. But they are the beginning. They are a kind of insidious poison and hatred that runs slowly into editorial offices. The enemy is the free press. Germany’s radical right seeks to undermine the free press by plastering the media with hate messages. One strategy is to keep the journalists and reporters from doing their work. Another strategy is to send more and more direct threats.
The radical right uses Anti-Corona hygiene rallies and ordinary people confused and disaffected by government measures as an accelerator to ignite mob attacks on journalists. The latest official numbers confirm this: of the 252 crimes against journalists counted by the federal government in 2020, a large proportion took place on the side-lines of so-called anti-Corona rallies, just like the one held in former East-Germany city of Leipzig in November 2020.
Hate messages on the net, beatings during such rallies and sending a dead pig’s head by mail. Attacks like these on journalists have become rampant. There are several explanations for this.
Neo-Nazi marches in Chemnitz in August 2018 spiced up with the Hitler salute, for example, was a very important moment of mobilization by Germany’s right-wing extremists against the press. The radical right’s brutality and blatant media hostility has now found a new outlet with the demonstrations against the government’s corona measures. Nobody likes to be told they can’t visit friends and relatives or walk through the streets or go for a glass of beer. Official medical explanations often don’t convince the uneducated and 1the inexperienced. Rising statistics on cases per day, number placed in hospitals and death rates are frightening. Frightened people blame the messengers and think that by shutting down the press and other media, the pandemic will go away.
Some experts argue that Coronavirus makes many people insecure. Insecurity makes them anxious. Anxiety cries out for quick solutions. Those looking for simple explanations for the complex crisis are susceptible to propaganda spewed out by right-wing extremists..
Soothing denials of reality and easy solutions is something Germany’s quality media does not offer because the Coronavirus pandemic is not a simple issue. Therefore, the media becomes the enemy. This is a common narrative that is rehearsed again and again by Pegida, AfD, the radical right, Neo-Nazis, etc. Anti-press resentment often appears during rallies against corona measures. The radical right claims Germany’s anti-Corona measures are instigated by the elites to control ordinary Germans.
At hygiene rallies one can see signs that say “Merkel is a puppet” and “Covid Press”. Anyone who thinks in such glib mind-sets can easily believe that the newsreader on television is an enemy and that the press is after them. Since most hygiene rallies and right-wing politicians are criticized by Germany’s quality media, the people side with the voices they can understand and condemn the elite broadcasters. The hatred of the entire apparently corrupt system, like an open sewer, is discharged into the town square and the nervous family’s living room.
Corona has also incited violence against journalists in other countries, to be sure . Journalists in the Netherlands were pelted with stones, beaten, sprayed in the face with a chemical substance and fired at with fireworks. Similar things have happened in Italy, Austria and Slovenia. In Germany, the official figures provided by the federal government on anti-press violence do not reflect the true reality of the problem, says Germany’s Reporters without Borders. It estimates that the true number must be at least twice as high as what is official counted. But as history teaches us, in the case of the Nazis in 1932, only a very small majority can quickly take over a whole nation. If Franklin Delano Roosevelt was right in saying on the eve of World War Two, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” we must see that the right-wing extremists have one product to peddle: fear.
In order to prevent journalists from being exposed to the hatred of right-wing demonstrators, reporters are, at times, accompanied by the police. But many press representatives do not want to rely on this: a free press has to be free to go where it needs to be report e vents properly. Again and again it happens during hygiene rallies that the police not only do not protect the press but even obstruct the press by not letting journalist past barriers, presenting them from interviewing members of the crowd and leaders of the rally. Many police officers do not even know that Article 5 of Germany’s constitution which guarantees freedom of the press, in fact, protects the press’ constitutional right to investigate such rallies.
One of the best-known examples of this happened to a ZDF (of one Germany’s main public broadcaster). Its team was filming a Pegida rally in the former East-German city of Dresden. Shortly into the event, two demonstrators reported to the police that journalists had allegedly violated their rights. The police detained the camera team for 45 minutes, checked their IDs and prevented them from working. The incident became known as “Pegizei” a portmanteau term combining “Pegida” and “Polizei” to show how close Saxony’s police and Pegida are. Despite an apology by Saxony’s police chief, the episode still shows how former East-German police officers protect the radical right against the media. This incident was so bad that Pegizei now has its own Wikipeida entry.
Overall however, there is a code of conduct between the police and the press. The code has a typical German and very cumbersome title “Principles of Conduct for the press/Radio and police to avoid obstructions in the performance of police duties and the free exercise of reporting”. Recently, politicians promised an urgent update of the code to outline how police officers should be better trained in legal issues when dealing with the media.
Today, some newspaper editors only send their press teams to demonstrations with bodyguards. A ZDF team which was attacked again recently during a so-called hygiene rally in Berlin suffered one of the most brutal incidents of last year. Four members of the reporting team had to be treated in hospital, despite the ZDF team having three security guards with them.
Germany’s DJU noticed that increasingly their members are experiencing violence and tend to avoid certain rallies. The journalists also tend to hide their press passes, camouflage microphones and take notes inconspicuously on their mobile phones. Before the big rally in Leipzig (November 2020), reporters and journalists had initially decided against reporting for fear of attacks.
In fact, there are regions in Germany – often in the former East-Germany – where journalists fear to go because police protection cannot be provided. This includes Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Brandenburg, Thuringia and Saxony. If this continues “reporting blind-spots” will appear in reminiscence that German Neo-Nazis call no go areas – areas cleansed of non-Germans. Historically, these are reminiscence to areas the real Nazis had cleaned of Jews – made Judenrein. In typical Nazi language, the German word “rein” or “clean” implies that an area was previously spoilt by the existence of Jews but now it has been cleaned up – purged of Jews. The inhumanity of the Neo-Nazis follows the inhumanity of Auschwitz.
Today, some of these areas remain un-spoilt by the presence of the media. This allows Germany’s right-wing extremists to operate more or less freely. Paradoxically, these “media free” areas mark places where media attention is mostly urgently needed. These are the cities, towns and villages where the enemies of democracy and free society congregate.
What right-wing extremists are capable of was demonstrated, not only in the former East-Germany but also on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC when thousands of Trump far-right extremists stormed the Capitol Building with the intention of threatening democratically elected members of congress and perhaps even of eliminating democracy altogether.