Playing watchdog for German press

  • Letters
  • Sunday, 12 Oct 2003

The German media is in dire straits due to the weak economy but its robust Press Council has had a lot on its plate, writes FOO YEE PING. 

DURING Germany’s general election in September last year, a magazine published a “picture” of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder almost naked except for a fig leave covering him. 

The leaf was in green and red, depicting the colours of his party. 

Many readers were not amused and complaints were made to the Deutscher Presserat (German Press Council). 

The verdict? 

“We felt the complaint was unfounded because his dignity was not affected,” said Ella Wassink, the council’s press relations division head. 

It was obvious, she said, that the picture was a mere drawing with a photograph of the Chancellor’s face affixed on it, she added. 

(However, values and norms differ from one country to another. Wassink noted that an Indonesian editor was jailed four months recently for publishing an “indecent” picture of a leader from the republic’s second largest party.) 

In another case, the German Press Council also dismissed complaints about newspapers which ran a photograph of a man falling from the World Trade Centre during the Sept 11 tragedy. 

“There was no identity of the man. Besides, the picture is a document of history,” she explained to a group of nine Asian journalists who visited Bonn on Sept 15. 

The study tour was organised by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, which is related to the Christian Democratic movement. 

Wassink stressed that press freedom was highly valued in Germany and that the only barriers were laws on personal rights, the rights of minors, and so on. 

It is stated in the German press code that the press shall respect people’s private lives but “if the private behaviour of a person touches upon public interests, then it may in isolated cases be discussed in the press.” 

The council, which deals only with the printed press, has published a booklet on the press code, detailing guidelines for journalistic work and explaining how the complaint system works. 

The press council received about 700 complaints last year compared to 682 in 2001 and 534 (2000). 

“The increase is more likely due to the acceptance and awareness of the public about the German Press Council,” said Wassink. 

Most of the common grouses centred on gross negligence in reporting facts, and violation of personal rights, she said. 

Wassink explained that there would be at least two persons in the press council to go through each written complaint. 

“Even if there is just one of them who feel that there has been a breach of the press code, the matter will be forwarded to the complaints committee,” she said. 

The council has rejected complaints about bad or tasteless jokes that did not pose an ethical problem. 

“Our goal is to establish guidelines on what to do and what not to do,” she said. 

Yet, the council is not without its flaws – there are criticisms about the council not opening its meetings to the public. 

“There is some talk going on about opening, at least partly, our meetings to the public but we are still in discussion on this,” she said. 

She explained that the press council was a self-regulatory body “which means that the press themselves (publishers and journalists) try to regulate the press because they are the ones who ‘make’ the press and have the most experience in the work.” 

“Besides, the press council does not want to make public the names of the complainants or facts which may interfere with the personal rights of the complainant and the respondent.” 

Another flak received by the press council was that the four types of sanctions imposed on the guilty parties are not legally binding. 

The sanctions are: public reprimand (with an obligation to print), non-public reprimand (when the reprimand is not printed to protect the victim), notice of censure and advice notice. 

Wassink, however, maintained that the newspapers would take seriously any reprimand – “they would publish it,” she said. 

About 95% of the publishing houses in Germany have signed a voluntary statement saying that their newspaper or magazine will publish any public reprimand issued by the press council. 

Last year, there were 356 publishing houses in Germany which come out with about 400 daily and weekly newspapers.  

However, the number of publishers which issue the 805 magazines and 1,094 specialist journals are not available. 

The German Press Council requires an annual budget of 600,000 euro (RM2.5mil). 

Out of this sum, 183,000 euro (RM768,600) is a federal grant while publishers contribute the remaining 75% and journalists’ associations (25%). 

Yet, having a press council is not the cure to all naughty practices of the press. 

One German editor believes that a more effective way is to learn from the rivals. 

“See what the next guy is doing,” he said. For you would not want to take the wrong road taken by him. 

A Thai journalist noted that the press council in his country was totally ineffective – often, the people in the council are from the very newspapers which committed the sins. 

However, Wassink maintains the importance of a press council, based on its 47 years of existence in Germany. 

“While it is important to have as many publishers and journalists on your side, it is also important to make sure that the public becomes aware of what a good opportunity a press council presents,” she said. 

“This is especially so when the press council deals with the problems of the press themselves, rather than a state that orders the laws. Since one of the tasks of the press is to observe and criticise politics, it should not be politics that make the setting for journalists,” she said.  

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