Deutsche Welle: Negotiations with Politics

Deutsche Welle (aka Voice of Germany) is a public broadcasting corporation, or, more specifically in German, a public broadcasting institution in accordance with federal law. Most domestic publicly-owned broadcasters, with a few exceptions, are  governed by interstate law – which isn’t federal law but a treaty collectively entered by the states.

In Die Deutsche Welle im Rahmen von Public Diplomacy (Deutsche Welle in the Framework of Public Diplomacy)1), Christian Michalek, in 2008 and 2009, tried to assess journalists’ self-image (or self-concept) on the one hand, and the Welle’s political mandate (politischer Auftrag) on the other. His book was published in 2009, but it should be pointed out that much or all of his work (according to the time when he accessed his online sources, according to his bibliography, probably had been done before the unharmonious days at Deutsche Welle began – or at least before possibly existing tensions within the organizaton escalated.

In his book, Michalek quotes the German Journalists Association (Deutscher Journalisten Verband) with a concept of journalism which makes circumstances or processes known  – the knowledge of which is of general, political, economic, or cultural significance. Another journalists’ association, the Deutsche Journalistinnen- und Journalisten-Union, is part of Germany’s ver.di union.

Michalek quotes other sources, too, concerning journalistic self-concepts, which demand control of the powerful (Kontrolle der Mächtigen) in politics, business, and society, plus entertainment, but adds that all these requirements aren’t necessarily legally binding.

89 per cent of German journalists put neutral and precise information first in their work, according to a survey in 2004 and 2005, by Weischenberg, Malik and Scholl2), as quoted by Michalek. 79 per cent of journalists want to explain complex issues, and 74 per cent feel obliged to provide quick information and to describe reality as found. The idea that news provided should be of interest to a range of potential viewers, listeners or readers which should be as broad as possible doesn’t get with exactly as much support among journalists – 60 per cent, according to Michalek’s quote from Weischenberg et al.

Michalek interviewed the Director of International Relations at Deutsche Welle;  a responsible from Marketing, Corporate Planning, and Ad Sales at Deutsche Welle (in charge of task-planning – see subtitle Negotiations with Politcs further down); and a deputy assistant under-secretary (Ministerialrat) with the Federal Commissioner for Culture and Media, plus three unnamed representatives of the foreign office (in charge of public diplomacy and communication abroad). While Michalek interprets assertions by the foreign office‘s officers and/or the Federal Commissioner for Culture and Media’s representative as an expectation that Deutsche Welle should convey German perceptions (Deutschland und dessen Sichtweisen), Deutsche Welle representatives he also interviewed maintained that a journalist’s primary task should be to transmit news, and that a task of generating interest in, appreciation of, or understanding of Germany – as well as presenting the Federal Republic as a role model (Vorbild) – should only come second. Just as their peers elsewhere in Germany, Deutsche-Welle journalists, too, come across as primarily news-and-information oriented, in Michalek’s findings.

His book doesn’t tell much else about the operative level, i. e. the daily routine in the editorial offices. Michalek explicitly placed his explorations on the meso level, i. e., according to, the middle ground the organizations that are on a mid scale, like communities or neighborhoods compared the macro structure of an entire city. Or, maybe somewhat more apposite in the Deutsche Welle context,  the level of organizational principles which portray the relationships between single areas of public administration among each other (“Ebene der organisatorischen Prinzipien, die die Beziehungen der einzelnen Bereiche der öffentlichen Verwaltung untereinander darstellen”)3).

An exertion of influence on the Welle’s editorial work was nothing even the foreign office’s or the Federal Commissioner for Culture and Media‘s representative interviewed would aim for, writes Michalek. Besides, such attempts would meet with massive protests and resistance among the Welle’s employees. Besides, a broadcaster free of such influence could only gain in terms of authenticity among its recipients – that’s where all interviewees agreed, according to Michalek.

Negotiations with Politics

While domestic public broadcasters are funded by the viewers or the audience via license fees4), the Welle depends on federal funding, as mentioned at the beginning. This leads to a particular formal way of negotiations between Deutsche Welle and politics – more specifically, between the Welle on the one hand, and the German federal government, and the lower house of parliament (the federal parliament, or Bundestag) on the other.

The Deutsche Welle Act (Deutsche-Welle-Gesetz, DWG) is available on the Welle’s website and describes the consultation procedure (para 4b) as follows:

(1) Deutsche Welle shall forward the draft annual update of its Task Plan to the German Bundestag and the Federal Government in due time after the Federal Government’s decision on the next Federal Budget and Financial Plan.
(2) The draft Task Plan shall be published in an appropriate manner to give the interested public in Germany and abroad an opportunity to comment.
(3) The Federal Government shall comment on the contents of Deutsche Welle’s Task Plan within six weeks.
The German Bundestag should take up this Task Plan within two months, taking the Government’s position into account.
(4) The Federal Government shall notify Deutsche Welle of the financial data adopted in its ongoing budget proceedings to the extent it affects Deutsche Welle.
(5) Deutsche Welle’s Broadcasting Board shall adopt the Task Plan within two months (with the consent of the Administrative Board), taking into account the comments of the German Bundestag, the Federal Government, and the public.
The Task Plan shall include an estimate of operating and investment costs during the period of the plan. If Deutsche Welle does not follow these comments in formulating its Task Plan, it shall substantiate this decision.
Deutsche Welle shall be responsible for adopting the Task Plan.
(6) The amount of the Federal subsidy for Deutsche Welle shall be determined in the annual Federal Budget Act.

(7) Deutsche Welle shall publish a final version of the Task Plan refl ecting the Federal subsidy.

The Welle doesn’t need to follow the Federal Government’s comments (see sub-para 3), or those from the Bundestag – but in an analysis of the 2006 procedure, Michalek found that the Welle did so in most cases that year. When it came to an item concerning stronger adaptation of the Asia programs to Chinese conditions, Deutsche Welle partly followed the Federal Commissioner for Culture and Media‘s comments.

Michalek points out that the Federal Commissioner for Culture and Media – not the foreign office – is exercising control of legality over Deutsche Welle. This arrangement puts some distance between the Welle and the foreign office (the latter of which, after all, is likely to be the one within government to take the greatest interest in the station as a tool for public diplomacy). That said, Michalek also refers to non-binding, formal and informal intercommunication (“unverbindliche, formelle und informelle Austauschprozesse”) between Deutsche Welle and the political arena, particularly the foreign office, which were hoped to serve a congruent international German appearance.

Ever since 1961, the German constitutional court has issued “Rundfunkurteile”, writes Michalek. These decisions weren’t only about what cannot be done, but about how to ensure a role for broadcasters which bars the state from broadcasting on its own, and to make sure that audiovisual programs are free from political, but also from dominantly unidirectional (einseitige) commercial and societal influences. The public broadcasting institutions, and those who work for them, are bearers or carriers of  what may be best translated as the freedom of the air waves (Rundfunkfreiheit), which in turn serves the role of broadcasting to perform as an essential medium for individual and public formation of opinion.

The court’s decisions, over more than five decades now, have led the arrangements around public broadcasters, based on Article 5 of the German Basic Law (Grundgesetz):

5. – ( 1 ) Everyone has the right freely to express and to disseminate his opinion by speech, writing and pictures and freely to inform himself from generally accessible sources. Freedom of the press and freedom of reporting by radio and motion pictures are guaranteed. There shall be no censorship.

( 2 ) These rights are limited by the provisions of the general laws, the provisions of law for the protection of youth and by the right to inviolability of personal honor.

( 3 ) Art and science, research and teaching are free. Freedom of teaching does not absolve from loyalty to the constitution.

Explanations as to why a simple “no” to unilateral or dominating influence from politics, or commercial, or societal interests wouldn’t be enough can be found online here (in German), on page 13 ff. in Manfred Kops’ Globalization as a Challenge for German Foreign Broadcasting (“Die Globalisierung als Herausforderung für den Deutschen Auslandsrundfunk”), but elaborating on this topic would go too far in the context of this blog post. Kops describes how inter-cultural dialog poses greater challenges than mere international dialog – something to get back to in another post. Both Kops and Michalek (or the sources he quotes) emphasize the constitutional courts definition of broadcasters as carriers of existing opinions, but also as factors in opinion forming. Their role as a factor in opinion forming necessitated the constitutional courts continuous guidance in organizing public broadcasting.

But Michalek points out circumstances which may be crucial in the brawl which has arisen in and around Deutsche Welle’s Chinese department since 2008 (without mentioning this particular department, or any particular department or stakeholder): There has been no decision if the freedom of the airwaves, as spelled out along the constitutional court’s decisions, applies for Deutsche Welle, or only for domestic broadcasters. In discussions, most lawyers would believe that the constitutional court’s decisions do not apply for foreign broadcasting specifically when it comes to a broadcaster which mainly speaks to foreign audiences5) – but there hasn’t been a decision by the constitutional court.

But even as such a decision is absent, another question would be if Deutsche Welle isn’t a carrier of the fundamental rights (or Grundrechte), and if freedom of the air waves doesn’t still apply for the broadcaster anyway, Michalek adds. There seemed to be no clear-cut trend among lawyers when it came to that question.

In at least two cases of the four employees and contributors of Deutsche Welle’s  Chinese department whose contracts weren’t continued late last / early this year, the labor courts have spoken, and apparently confirmed the Deutsche Welle’s measures. But having read Michalek, I’m wondering if this occured in a legal limbo, or in a sheer legal gap, which could – and should – be filled by the constitutional court.



1) Michalek, Christian, Die Deutsche Welle im Rahmen von Public Diplomacy – Journalistisches Selbstverständnis und Politischer Auftrag des deutschen Auslandsrundfunks, München, 2009
2) Weischenberg, Siegfried / Malik, Maja / Scholl, Armin: Journalismus in Deutschland 2005, Zentrale Befunde der aktuellen Repräsentativbefragung deutscher Journalisten, in: Media Perspektiven Nr. 7 2006, S. 346 – 361.
3) Ignace Snellen, Grundlagen der Verwaltungswissenschaft, ein Essay über ihre Paradigmen, p. 125. Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften/Springer Fachmedien, Wiesbaden 2006
4) This difference may lead to the impression that politics isn’t involved in determining the license fee when it comes to domestic broadcasters. My personal note: politicians play a role in determining the license fees, too – but their involvement may not be exactly as immediate as in the case of Deutsche Welle, and the procedures differ from each other.
5) Michalek, p. 69:

Während der Inlandsrundfunk (…) ohne Zweifel in die Zuständigkeit der Länder fällt und dem Bund dort eine Einmischung verboten ist (vgl. Dörr, 1996, S. 18), besteht im Hinblick auf die Veranstaltung ausländischer Rundfunksendungen keine Rechtssicherheit. Das Bundesverfassungsgericht, das mit seinem ersten Rundfunkurteil von 1961 die Verhältnisse für inländischen Rundfunk klar geregelt hat, hat bis heute nicht zu dieser Problematik gesprochen. Mittlerweile geht jedoch die herrschende juristische Meinung davon aus, dass Sendungen, die ausschließlich oder in erster Linie auf ein Zielgebiet außerhalb der Bundesrepublik gerichtet sind, gemäß des Art. 73 Nr. 1 GG (auswärtige Angelegenheiten) und des Art. 32 Abs. 1 GG (Pflege der Beziehungen zu auswärtigen Staaten) unter die Gesetzgebung des Bundes fallen und auch deren Verwaltung aufgrund des Art. 87 GG (Gegenstände bundeseigener Verwaltung) in dessen Hand liegen [statement of sources]. Insofern kann die Ausgestaltung der Deutschen Welle durch das vom Bund erlassene Deutsche-Welle-Gesetz als rechtmäßig anerkannt werden.



» JR turns to Science, Dec 17, 2011
» RTI: For the World to Hear, Aug 3, 2010


14 Responses to “Deutsche Welle: Negotiations with Politics”

  1. The quotation from Michalek, page 69, discusses just if Deutsche Welle may be subject of federal law at all, since decades ago it had been ruled that broadcasting is entirely in the responsibility of the states, resulting in Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen being established as joint institution of all states. It is basically a theoretical discussion for jurists, since nobody seriously challenges Deutsche Welle as federal institution.

    The main practical difference is that Deutsche Welle gets its budget allocated by the federal parliament after requesting it with the paper called Aufgabenplanung. In the case of the domestic broadcasters an independent body called Kommission zur Ermittlung des Finanzbedarfs der Rundfunkanstalten determines the required budget as an additional firewall in between. But still there is no evidence for the budget allocation procedures resulting in federal authorities having a say in the content broadcast by Deutsche Welle. (You mentioned elsewhere the “editorials” broadcast by Voice of America: They are clearly separated from own editorial content, in my opinion attentive listeners can hardly miss that.)

    In this context the question is if federal authorities had any influence on the developments at DW’s Chinese service. I see nothing that would indicate this whatsoever.

    This story has another aspect I have not seen mentioned here so far: In 2008 the dismissal of Mathias von Hein, the head of the Chinese service, has been reported by Xinhua ten hours before it became known to anyone outside DW in Germany. For reference:

    I checked back then via Google News and indeed found Xinhua items timestamped clearly before the meeting where DW director Bettermann first revealed this decision, confirming the accusations from Epoch Times at least in this particular point.

    It is perhaps a matter of one’s cultural background, but from a typical German point of view it is simply inacceptable if people at DW, who just could be the only source, leak such a decision to Xinhua when it is still not in the public domain in Germany. The same applies to the self-interview published by Zhang Danhong that triggered the dismissal of Mathias von Hein. It was plain abuse of a broadcasting service for private purposes, for privately attacking someone else.

    Concerning the recent firing of four other DW editorial staff members some quotations from inside DW have been obtained by Evangelischer Pressedienst, requoted in the possible extent here (page will for reasons of broadcasting regulation remain online until upcoming May only):

    The head of the Asia department said that the current atmosphere would be the result of far-ranging structural changes, the DW press spokesman said that “external monitoring for ensuring quality” would be “common practice in other language services, too”. Works committee member Christian Hoppe commented that the “open letter” in parts “overshoots the mark” but “in general reflects the events in the editorial offices correctly”. Hoppe said that at DW Chinese service “critical remarks are not welcome” and “no discussion with the head of the service is possible”.

    The primary conclusion that can be drawn is that there is a serious lack of confidence between Deutsche Welle and its foreign staff members. This is a situation not limited to the Chinese service, some recent developments at the Ethiopia service are pretty similar. And the ongoing cuts (in the recent months Deutsche Welle terminated a large amount of its radio services, the Chinese one has been cut by half as well) in general result in a deep uncertainty.


  2. Hi Mr. Ludwig,

    thanks for your comment. ‘The federal-law aspect caught my eyes because the Deutsche Welle Gesetz itself mentions it at the beginning, and because it played a role in Michalek’s explanations. He also wrote that even if federal law applies – an “if” to which a majority of lawyers seemed to answer with “yes” -, the issue of freedom of the airwaves as a fundamental right wouldn’t still apply, and that – according to Michalek, there was no such clear-cut trend among lawyers’ opinions on that second issue.

    The RadioEins article only came to my attention last month, and it’s mentioned here. As for Zhang Danhong’s self-interview, I blogged about soon after, here, and somewhere previously, and I’m not suggesting that the tensions during the past three years can be squarely blamed on one or two stakeholders. When it comes to Xinhua or China Daily, some reading of alternative sources is certainly called for.

    That said, a more open approach by Deutsche Welle when it comes to these issues could be helpful. After all, China is one of the Welle’s target areas. I’m aware that there are probably close confines to such a more transparent approach, given the need to protect the interests of the employees, or a certain degree of privacy, given that there may be civil law cases underway, etc., but Chinese natonalists and propagandists, keep banging the drums of “there’s-no-freedom-of-speech-in-Germany” etc.. That won’t drive Chinese listeners to Deutsche Welle away in droves (not in my opinion, anyway), because they will be either interested in a foreign source of information – even if only as an alternative “propaganda mouthpiece”, or they belong to an indifferent majority who never cared about freedom of information in the first place – or not enough to actively seek for more diverse sources than what’s available at home.

    This news story has turned into quite a saga, and I currently see no way to put it all into a single blog post. That’s why I added a Deutsche-Welle tag soon after my first posts about the topic.



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