What is behind Germany’s descent in the rankings for freedom of the press?

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On May 3rd, the 2022 Press Freedom Ranking was published by Reporters Without Borders. The annual press freedom ranking compares the situation for journalists and media professionals in over 180 countries. This year, the ranking is published for the 20th time. Germany has dropped from 16th to 21st place for the third year in a row.

 Crises threaten press freedom worldwide

Reporters without Borders cites new crises and wars, as well as conflicts that flare up again and again, as reasons for the threat to press freedom. These crises have an impact on the job security of journalists. According to Reporters Without Borders, “murders and kidnappings, arrests and physical attacks are just different manifestations of the same problem: governments, interest groups and individuals want to use violence to prevent media professionals from reporting independently”.

In countries such as Egypt, China and even Germany, journalists are increasingly subject to attacks and aggression that make it difficult for them to report and thus endanger the general freedom of the press. Europe remains one of the freest regions in the world for journalists. According to Reporters Without Borders, however, a worrying negative trend can be observed. Apart from Germany, violent attacks have occurred in France and Italy. In Germany, this figure is currently at a record high – but what are the reasons for this?

Why does Germany continue to descend?

Reporters Without Borders cites three central reasons: Firstly, legislation that endangers journalists and their sources, violent attacks during demonstrations and a decrease in media diversity.

The BND law

The legislation criticised is the so-called BND Act. The BND is the German foreign intelligence service. The Society for Freedom (GGF) and Reporters without Borders have filed a constitutional complaint against this legislation with the Federal Constitutional Court. The accusation is that journalists are not sufficiently protected from surveillance by the BND and are thus restricted in their confidential dealings with sources. According to the organisations, the BND can still process data on these communications and thus trace the communication channels. The complaint was supported by numerous German and European journalists and journalistic networks.

In May 2020, the Federal Constitutional Court declared the BND’s global surveillance in its existing form unconstitutional. The law allowed the BND to selectively intercept and analyse communications abroad. This form of surveillance could affect everyone, including journalists who communicate abroad, according to the GGF. The permanent surveillance is seen by the complaining organisations as a danger to the freedom of the press, as sources could not trust that their person would be kept secret. This, they say, is a major threat to investigative journalism. Also included in the constitutional complaint was criticism of the regulations on monitoring and the partly automated cooperation with foreign secret services. This also poses a considerable danger to journalists if their communication data falls into the wrong hands.

Criticism of the reformed BND law

After the successful constitutional complaint, the reformed law came into force on 1 January 2022. The GGF argued that it continued to violate civil liberties and was hardly an improvement on the previous, criticised provisions. Journalists are still not sufficiently protected. As a result, the GGF, Reporters without Borders and investigative journalists from all over Europe are once again taking the case to the Federal Constitutional Court.

Violence against journalists during protests

Violence against journalists has increased significantly, especially as a result of the Corona demonstrations. This is the conclusion of the study “Journalist as Enemy”. According to the study, protests and demonstrations were among the most dangerous workplaces for journalists in the last two years. Reporters Without Borders reports more than 80 violent attacks per year. This is a new negative record. The number of unreported cases is estimated to be even higher. Journalists have been spat at or even beaten with fists by participants in “lateral thinking” demonstrations. Most of the attacks came from the political right-wing spectrum and are the result of an explicit form of press hatred. The study calls for a swift police, judicial and political crackdown on press haters as a countermeasure. There is a threat of even greater retreat and danger to press freedom if these structural problems are not quickly addressed. According to Reporters Without Borders, media professionals criticised the lack of support from the police.

Lack of reforms and sexism

The financial problems, especially of the daily newspapers, have had a negative impact on press freedom in Germany. Reasons given are the consequences of the Corona pandemic, but also sexism and lack of reforms in the journalism business. Rising paper prices have put many press houses in financial distress. A decrease in journalistic diversity can be observed mainly in more rural regions.  Even at the traditional publishing house “Gruner + Jahr”, more than 700 jobs were cut in February and 23 magazines were discontinued. According to the Taz, this is mainly due to the failure to digitise.

This unwillingness to adapt is also evident in the treatment of women and queer individuals in journalism. The study “How Sexism Threatens Women Journalists” criticises the prevailing sexism in editorial offices and the serious effects on the position and presence of women and queer individuals in the media. In 61% of cases, no countermeasures were taken in editorial offices when sexual violence was reported in the workplace, according to the study.Discrimination against male colleagues and injustice are also increasingly in focus. A study by the “new German media makers” on diversity in journalism underlines the structural problems. It points out deficits regarding diversity in German media companies and the negative consequences to be feared in the long term. The recently published podcast “BoysClub” brings the topic further into focus. The podcast uses the Axel Springer publishing house as an example to illustrate the critical power structures in journalism.

Is the situation hopeless?

No, it is not. Because despite the worrying development of press freedom in Germany in recent years, there is hope for positive changes in the future. The fact that the abuses are being exposed and discussed is an important step in the right direction. The ongoing debate and public pressure can lead to action by politicians and those responsible in institutions to protect and promote press freedom in Germany.

There are already initiatives and measures aimed at ensuring the safety of journalists and improving legislation. There is a United Nations action plan to improve the safety of journalists worldwide. Better awareness-raising and training of police and judiciary can help to prevent and punish violence against journalists during demonstrations more effectively.

Likewise, the increased criticism of overly homogenous editorial teams and the coming to terms with abuses of power strengthen the debate and have the potential to change the media landscape. Overall, then, there is reason to hope that press freedom in Germany can be strengthened. With increased commitment from all stakeholders, improved legislation and better training and awareness, journalists and their sources can be better protected in the future. This will hopefully allow Germany, as well as other countries, to climb up a few ranks again next year.