Press Freedom in Germany: Who’s afraid of Tilman Spengler?

Christian Y. Schmidt comes from a city which, according to a popular conspiracy, doesn’t even exist. From 1989 to 1995, he was an editor with Germany’s satirical paper Titanic. His wife is from Beijing, and they both live in Beijing. As a free author, he writes for the Berliner Zeitung, Konkret, taz, Jungleworld, and for the Riesenmaschine blog.

In a speech to the German-Chinese Students Forum at Beijing’s University of International Business and Economics, on December 4, 2010, he addressed the issue of press freedom in Germany, and pointed out that there were several limits to it.

In legal terms – Schmidt quoted from the penal code (Strafgesetzbuch) -, paras 86, 89, 90, 90a, 91, 111, 130 and 131 dealt with anti-constitutional organizations and activities, disparaging the federal president, the state or its symbols, constitutional institutions, and depictions of violence.

All that, he said, was nothing he would object to, adding that there were no governmental guidelines about what the press should or should not cover, but while the German press was freer than the Chinese, there were more limits to it German law would suggest.

  1. The press was depending on its advertising customers. Practically every paper had an automobile supplement. Provided that a car wouldn’t fall to pieces during a road test, it would be judged in a benevolent way. Besides, journalists who wrote about cars would get a car for reference, possibly for months. “Travel agencies offer trips free of charge. When I lived in Singapore, some German journalists would drop by, as they travelled to Bangkok on the Eastern and Oriental Express. That trip costs some 2,300 to 4,700 dollars, currently. Of course, the German journalists didn’t have to pay. […] Either way, I have never read something bad about the Eastern and Oriental Express in German papers’ travel section.”
  2. Political dependence played a role, too. Even though the German press criticized the government – and the opposition – frequently and with pleasure, there were limits. Germany’s economic order wasn’t questioned. The idea that banks could be nationalized, as a result of the recent financial crisis, had never been discussed. This was especially true for national television or radio, where political parties wouldn’t determine the contents of broadcasts, but members of the board of governors, plus the editors-in-chief. Besides, being close to politicians was rewarded in that journalists received information that others wouldn’t get. Whenever government and opposition agreed in parliament, the press would hardly criticize a narrative – the Yugoslav war in 1999, when the federal government argued that there had been a particular operation within a plan of ethnic cleansing by the Milosevic government, the Operation Horseshoe.
  3. Dependence on readers, listeners, and viewers was trickier, in that there was less obvious evidence for it. Not only would the media shape the ways the public thought, but there would also be more public demand for certain issues, and less for others. Bad news sold better than good news – unless it was news about certain trouble at European or German doorsteps, such as refugees dying at the European Union’s borders to the outside world. These deaths, Schmidt argues, were human rights violations, too, but none of the kind the average German newsreader would be particularly interested in. After all, more refugees within Germany would hardly be welcome.
  4. Economic pressure was created as fewer journalists had to cover a growing number of issues. That was leading to inaccuracies. Besides, investigative journalism was almost absent in Germany.

All this was referring to mainstrem news coverage, Schmidt pointed out, and the fundamental freedom to cover issues, too, shouldn’t be underrated.

But if German coverage of China had to be critical, why would this criticism spare German companies, which, after all, relied on excellent relations with Chinese authorities?

Schmidt came back to China’s German business friends in a Spiegel Online interview on Wednesday. Distortions in the choice of photos, for example, were no indication for governmental guidelines, as Chinese people would sometimes believe, as they felt the German press was synchronized.

Schmidt: “I always tell them in such cases that here, this happens in a rather informal way (Ich erkläre ihnen dann immer, dass das hierzulande eher informell geschieht).”

Spiegel: Come again?

Schmidt: I’ve just seen another nice example, concerning  the sinologist Tilman Spengler, who was disinvited from the Art of Enlightenment show’s opening ceremony. There was a press conference about this issue in Beijing. It is reported that a journalist was booed at by business leaders  as he asked a question about Tilman Spengler. I do believe that it happened – but none of these business leaders is mentioned by name. It’s interesting to see how the Chinese government is demonized, but that German business leaders who side with that government’s propaganda aren’t mentioned by name. I’m asking myself: why not? Could it be out of fear for losing advertising customers? My impression is that in Germany, too,  those who call the shots are only confronted reluctantly, similar to China. But of course, this works differently from how the Chinese imagine it to happen. Nobody needs to give directions to this end.

Schmidt made his speech in Beijing some five months ago, while his interview with Der Spiegel was published this week. As a former Titanic editor, he surely developed a fine sense for the limits of press freedom – every monthly issue is carefully checked by an attorney before it goes to press. The central question, every time, isn’t that much if the paper will get sued, but how chances are that it will be acquitted.

The SPD’s (social democrats) politicians had been particularly quick to anger, and to sue, at least before 2003, and according to the attorney herself. Late Johannes Rau, for example, Northrine Westphalia’s prime minister from 1978 to 1988, and federal president from 1999 to 2004, tried to make sure that they would never refer to him as the time-bomb from Wuppertal (Wuppertaler Zeitbombe) again.


The too-friendly Maikefeng, April 28, 2011
Is the Internet the Enemy of the Intellectual, May 23, 2009
Why are Mass Media losing Relevance, Febr 26, 2009

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