Germany’s media outlets confess contribution to the rise of the AfD. The question is what they have gained from it and, their reports on Muslims, migrants and refugees.
The last decade has seen a rise in the popularity of far-right movements across Europe. In Germany, this rise can be traced back to the so-called refugees crisis of 2015.
Germany’s most popular far-right party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), was only represented in four federal parliaments of Germany’s 16 Laender (federal states) before 2015.
Merkel’s policy of “Wir Schaffen Das” (We’ll make it), which opened Germany’s borders to almost a million refugees stuck in Hungary and the Balkans, was sharply criticised by the AfD. The liberal-left Suddeutsche Zeitung writes that the AfD was “successfully positioning themselves as the voice of outrage.”
Since then, the AfD has been voted into all 16 federal parliaments and is the strongest opposition party in the Bundestag (national parliament).
When the party entered the Bundestag, several German media outlets alleged that AfD politicians have been “bumped into” the political mainstream through steady coverage and its presence on major talk shows.
Many media outlets forget or deliberately disregard their own coverage of Muslims, outsiders, migrants and refugees – and the effects of this coverage.
Mainstream media plays into AfD’s hands but loses credibility
The German public’s trust in the media has dipped. Thirty-nine percent of Germans believe that media outlets distort the truth and conceal facts, according to an Allensbach survey conducted in 2015. A 2017 study by the Institute of Journalism at the University of Mainz shows that only 13 percent of those polled used the term "the press of lies," which is an attack on the general credibility of the press – but 17 percent generally do not trust the media, and another 41 percent only trust it partially.
Journalists are described in letters to several newspapers as "blinded do-gooders," "idiots" and "bums" by among others lawyers, tax consultants, civil servants and pharmacists. The book “Is the Media Lying to Us?” (Luegen die Medien?) made it onto the German bestseller list in 2017.
“The right-wing populists' accusation that the media are a "press of lies" arose in connection with the extraordinarily positive coverage of refugees in general in the summer 2015,” Professor Kai Hafez tells TRT World.
“As a reaction to the accusation [“press of lies”] the reporting [on refugees] also became significantly more negative from autumn 2015, with the climax of the "New Year's Eve scandal [in Cologne]."
Criticism of the media by the far-right and mitte der gesellschaft (centre of society) ended up pressuring the media into changing the nature of their coverage of the refugee crisis, which in turn, ended up boosting the popularity of the AfD. Additionally, far-righters who accused the media of being “the press of lies” continue to regard them as such despite their shift in coverage.
[“Centre of society” is a term used in the German political context to describe the majority of the population, who is ideologically distant from the two extremes of left and right.]
Before the Bundestag elections in 2017, media scientist Bernd Gaebler analysed the journalistic dilemma for the Otto Brenner Foundation. In a study titled "AfD und Medien" (AfD and Media), he pointed out the structural similarities between the two, who are linked in “love-hate relationships.”
"Polemics, the breaking of taboos and the scandal open up higher chances of publicity than a regular course of events," he wrote.
In short, Gaebler is saying that the script is always the same: AfD politicians make a provocative or racist statement and the media reports it and the public is bombarded with a stream of statements.
Even if it is reported on critically, the end product is the same – the AfD benefits from the attention and then half-heartedly softens the provocative statement later. What this means is that the outrage over the offensive statement disappears but the basic premise of the statement remains and is normalised.
Muslims do not have good press
So are the media responsible for growing Islamophobia? Professor Kai Hafez from the University of Erfurt answers this question with a resounding ‘yes’. His answer is corroborated by a 2015 Bertelsmann study on the perception of Islam in Germany: 57 percent of Germans see the catchword "Islam" as a threat, 61 percent even think that Islam does not fit into the Western world.
Hafez criticises the so-called agenda-setting.
“It would be important to portray Muslims as individuals, to understand their contexts of action [why is Islam important for many people especially in transformation societies?] and to establish a kind of reciprocity [for example to think along with the West's own complicity in refugee flows through the wars in the Middle East],” he says.
Rising violence against journalists
There are more than 80 cases that the European Centre for Press & Media Freedom (ECPMF) in Germany’s Leipzig has collected in recent years and categorised in a list of politically motivated violent attacks against journalists in Germany. The latest version of this list can be found in the appendix of the report "’Lying press’ as the enemy” published in 2018. This report comes to a grim conclusion: violence against journalists is on the rise again.
The authors of the EPCMF study state that the term "the press of lies" has significantly lowered the sensitivity to violence against journalists. The shortcoming of this study is that the EPCMF uses media reports, video, images and police reports to record cases which limits its findings. As a result, the number of unreported cases is likely to be higher.
Data on violence against journalists in Germany have only been collected for a few years. The ECPMF began in 2015. Prior to 2015, Reporters Without Borders says there had simply been too few cases.
The Federal Criminal Police Office has also kept statistics on attacks and figures may vary from case to case, but the trend shows that violent attacks against reporters in Germany have increased between 2015 and 2018.
“While in the past it was mainly neo-Nazis who threatened and attacked journalists, today more and more people from the centre of society showed a readiness to use violence,” the report concludes.