Written by Daria Gordeeva

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  • Area: 357.168 square kilometres
  • Population: 81,2 Mio. (2014)
  • Capital: Berlin
  • State form: federal parliamentary republic
  • Official language: German
  • Religion: Roman Catholicism (29,9 per cent, 2014)

  • Flag of Germany

    After being a tool of dictatorship transmitting propaganda, German mass media experienced an “hour zero” in 1945. Today’s Germany has a free media system, the fifth largest newspaper market in the world and an efficient “dual system” of broadcasting (public and commercial). The German media environment in general is successful and vibrant, whereby the German media “generally enjoy editorial independence” (Freedom House, 2015). According to Freedom House, Germany has a “free” press. Reporters Without Borders ranked Germany 16th out of 180 countries in its Press Freedom Index (2016). However, as in every other country, there are issues which need to be discussed. Refugee crisis led to public discussions about immigration, increase of anti-immigration violence and growth of radical right-wing movements. Journalists and newsrooms covering Islamophobic and xenophobic groups were being harassed, threatened and attacked. The controversial legal situation, in particular the law on data detention, is the other source of concern mentioned by NGOs. Financial crisis in media industry, erosion of media diversity, falling wages as well as the controversial image of the media among the population are further aspects worth discussing. The following report is based on document analysis, annual reports of Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders as well as two expert interviews with the managing editor of Süddeutsche Zeitung Alexandra Borchardt and the head of the leading German journalism school Jörg Sadrozinski.
    Communication policy and regulations
    Political Environment

    In 1945 the mass media in Germany experienced an “hour zero” and started anew after being a tool of dictatorship during the years of the Third Reich. The new media system was based on the principle of media freedom (Kleinsteuber & Thomaß, 2007: 111). Now Germany has a “free” press and the German media “generally enjoy editorial independence” (Freedom House, 2015). In 2016 Reporters Without Borders (RWB) ranked Germany 16th out of 180 countries in its Press Freedom Index.

    However, the refugee crisis led to contested public discussion about refugee policy and media coverage. In 2015, more than one million refugees came to Germany. In the period from January to July 2016, 479.620 applications for asylum were made (Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, 2016). Thousands of people participated in Pegida’s (a German acronym for “Patriotic Europeans against the Occident’s Islamization”) anti-Islam demonstrations and chanted slogans such as “lying press” and “traitors of the nation” against journalists and politicians, criticizing the mainstream media coverage and the biased press reporting on immigration issues. Although violence against journalists is generally rare, threats and harassment against journalists reporting on activities of far-right groups increased in 2014 (Freedom House, 2015). RWB (2015) reported that newsrooms and critical journalists who covered Pegida’s demonstrations as well as the war in the Ukraine were frequently insulted, threatened in social media and internet forums and received hate mails. In some cases, journalists were physically attacked by small groups at anti-Islam demonstrations in German cities (Otto, 2015) and “on several occasions photojournalists in particular complained that the police did not offer them adequate protection from harassments and threats at demonstrations” (RWB, 2015). Several editorial offices were attacked in 2014, including targeted arson attacks. In 2015 unknown persons circulated online fake “death announcements” for journalists reporting on Nazi movements in Dortmund (ibid.).

    The other source of concern for journalists noted by NGOs is a lack of legal protection of potential whistleblowers in Germany. According to RWB (2015), the German government has no interest in supporting whistleblowers. In 2014, for example, it wanted to bring a criminal charge against whistleblowers who exposed “confidential” information to journalists, in particular information from the parliamentary committee investigating the NSA spying scandal (Blome et al., 2014). RWB (2015) claims that this undermines “the media’s supervisory function vis-à-vis the political class”. However, both interviewed experts emphasized that German media are the country’s “fourth estate”. Jörg Sadrozinski said that journalists depend on information which they get from political authorities and politicians depend on media covering their activities. It is a very intensive relationship, but neither journalists nor politicians play a clearly dominating role. Both experts mentioned Panama Papers as an excellent example of how German media act as watchdogs and the “fourth estate” uncovering abuses and controlling those with power in politics and finance.

    Legal Environment

    Article 5 of the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany guarantees every citizen “the right freely to express and disseminate his opinions in speech, writing and pictures, and to inform himself without hindrance from generally accessible sources”. The Basic Law also guarantees “freedom of the press and freedom of reporting by means of broadcasts and films” and prohibits censorship. Nevertheless, these rights find their limits in the right to personal honour, provisions of general laws and provisions for the protection of minors. For example, hate speech, Holocaust denial, and Nazi propaganda are banned by §130 of the German Criminal Code. There are two kinds of censored media in Germany. The first are media and materials, which are considered offensive or indecent. They are usually placed on the “Index” maintained by the Federal Review Board for Media Harmful to Minors and severely restricted in their publication, sale, and distribution. The second are materials considered unconstitutional and dangerous to the state, for example, materials which support National Socialism or Neo-Nazism. The underlying concept is a self-defending democracy. So, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution keeps track of and counters anti-constitutional and thus undemocratic political movements to legally hinder their rise.

    The Freedom of Information Act that entered into force in 2006 gives citizens the legal right to access official information held by the authorities of the Federal Government. However, there are various exceptions relating to the protection of special public interests, the official decision-making process, personal data, intellectual property, and business or trade secrets. The authority should provide access to the information within one month and may furnish the information “verbally, in writing or in electronic form”. However, the Freedom of Information Act remains insufficient on the federal level and only twelve of sixteen federal states have a corresponding legislation. RWB (2015) also claims that German citizens and journalists are sometimes prevented from exercising this right. In addition to the numerous exceptions mentioned above, many federal authorities demand high fees and are slow to process requests, what sometimes hampers reporting.

    According to the general principle of federalism, media legislation in Germany is in the hand of the federal states (Bundesländer). Thus, all nationwide media laws have to be passed by states. The nationwide law for broadcasting services and telecommunication media – the Interstate Broadcasting Agreement – is a treaty passed by all federal states and contains the regulatory framework for public service and private broadcasting in Germany. It is the basis for other media laws, for example, the Interstate Agreement on Broadcasting License Fees and the Interstate Agreement on the Financing of Broadcasting. Some aspects covering internet services were also refined by the federal Telecommunications Act. Press laws in Germany are made on the state-level and a framing law for all regional press laws still doesn’t exist. Since 2012 journalists and editorial offices in Germany are protected from police raids and confiscation of materials by the Press Freedom Law. However, this law doesn’t protect freelance journalists against state abuses in their investigative work.

    On 16 October 2015, the German Federal Diet approved a law on data retention that entered into force in December and obliges telecommunication companies and internet providers to store telephone and internet connection data of customers (such as telephone numbers, names, addresses, passwords, PINs, and dynamic IP addresses) for investigation purposes, even if there are no specific grounds for suspicion. This controversial legislation has been criticized because it “allows the police to conduct clandestine surveillance operations (including searches of homes, inspection of computer hard disks, and phone taps)” (RWB, 2016). Some voices claim that the law threatens the confidentiality of journalistic sources and could be used to punish “whistleblowers” – informants, who receive few legal protections in Germany. Therefore, journalists conducting investigative research as well as their informants should be better protected against police searches. However, supporters of the legislation emphasize that the types of information that can be stored and the duration of storage are limited by law. Furthermore, personal data can be passed on to the police, intelligence services and custom authorities only under very broadly defined requirements (Freedom House, 2016; RWB, 2015, 2016). Both interviewed experts noted that the law on data retention didn’t make the work of journalists and whistleblowers more difficult. Alexandra Borchardt said that the editorial office of Süddeutsche Zeitung doesn’t have any problems regarding whistleblowers and investigative research. Thus, the quality of investigative work remains very high there.

    Trade unions

    There are two major journalist organizations: The German Federation of Journalists (Deutscher Journalisten-Verband, DJV) and the German Journalists Union (Deutsche Journalistinnen- und Journalisten-Union, dju). The DJV is a professional association, trade union and service center for journalists with about 38.000 members. It is one of the largest national journalist organizations worldwide and calls itself “the voice of journalism in Germany” striving for responsible, credible and independent journalism. It brings journalists together on meetings, congresses, forums, etc. and creates opportunities for exchange of experiences and ideas as well as for discussions about new developments on the media market. The DJV is committed to systematic training and regular further education as well as copyright protection. It is also critically monitoring processes of concentration in the German media market to limit monopolizing in press and broadcasting and guarantee diversity of opinion via pluralistic media landscape. The dju is a part of ver.di, a large German trade union with over two million members: employees, freelancers, civil servants, and students working in services or related industries – in the fields of education, art, culture and the media. The dju is, inter alia, an advocate of the journalists’ right to work, acceptable workplace and training conditions, fair payment, good work-life-balance and equality.
    Media offers
    Media outlets, key national and foreign media, ownership and resources

    There are more than 340 daily newspapers with a total circulation of around 16 million copies and 20 weekly newspapers in Germany (BDZV, 2016). Freedom House (2015) describes the German media market as “the biggest newspaper market in Europe” and one of “the most successful and vibrant media environments”. However, the number and circulation of newspapers is declining since the early 1990s (BDZV 2012). While local and regional newspaper markets are characterized by a large number of titles, there are only a few national dailies, inter alia, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Welt, Tageszeitung, and the top-selling tabloid Bild. The most successful and important weekly is Die Zeit, which presents less actual news but more analysis and background information. On the magazine market there are around 790 popular magazines and more than 1100 special interest journals (Media Perspektiven, 2015: 46). The most influential political magazine is Der Spiegel, known for its investigative style of journalism. Focus und Stern have a political significance, too.

    The German press is characterized by a high degree of economic concentration. A small number of publishers dominate the market for daily newspapers and have market shares of almost 43 per cent (Axel Springer, Stuttgarter Zeitung, Funke, Madsack, and DuMont Schauberg). Bauer, Burda, Funke/WAZ, Gruner + Jahr, and Springer – the five largest magazine publishers – cover about 63 per cent of the market (Media Perspektiven, 2015: 51, 53).

    Since 1984 Germany has a “dual system” of broadcasting: public and commercial. Public service broadcasters are independent and non-commercial organizations, financed primarily by license fees. Twelve public service organizations (German: Rundfunkanstalten) provide the states with radio and television. Their organizational and legal structure is defined in state laws. Regional public broadcasters are merged into ARD (Consortium of public broadcasters in Germany). The other national public service TV broadcaster is ZDF (Second German Television). ARD and ZDF jointly offer specialized programs such as arte, 3Sat, Kika, and Phoenix. Public service broadcasters also offer culturally and educationally oriented TV programs with regional content (Third Channels) as well as national radio programs and radio programs on regional basis. German commercial TV is controlled by two media groups: ProSiebenSAT.1 Media (including TV channels ProSieben and SAT.1) and Bertelsmann (including RTL and VOX).

    There is no national private radio broadcaster. Commercial radio broadcasters follow a regional pattern: Some of them are active in several states (for example, Klassik Radio), the others only regional or local (for example, Radio Charivari in Munich). The broadcaster Deutsche Welle provides services (radio, TV, and online) to foreign countries. At the same time, online becomes increasingly popular. According to DENIC – the central registry of all domains under the country code “.de” – there are over 16 million .de-domains. All major media outlets in Germany maintain an online website, most of them are also active in several social networks (Kleinsteuber & Thomaß, 2007: Marschall, 2014; Wilke, 2012).

    NGOs and both interviewed experts speak about the financial crisis in the print media industry and “the creeping erosion of media diversity” (RWB, 2015). Both the number of newspapers with their own full editorial staff and the number of permanently employed editors are in decline. In some places in Germany there is only one regional newspaper left. Thus, competing print media are rare. Journalists also have less and less time to research and examine information. At the same time, the number and the size of press and PR offices at organizations, companies and PR agencies grows. The gaps left by editorial staff reductions are filled by ready-to-print PR texts, which are often barely distinguishable from editorial content for readers. As a result, different newspapers have the same, pre-produced, cheap content. The growing use of “advertorials” also leads to the problem of the increasingly blurred line between editorial content and covert advertising, between independently researched topics and product placement (ibid.) Regional newspapers suffered the most from the economic crisis in the media industry. Alexandra Borchardt said that even the national quality press was affected: many editorial offices have merged or disappeared, many people have lost their jobs.

    Foreign quality media, such as New York Times, The Guardian, BBC or CNN, play an important role for German journalists. Jörg Sadrozinski explained it by the Americentrism of most Western European journalists. So, journalists follow renowned foreign media and observe the topics and issues which they cover. If these stories work well there, they will also be made in Germany. However, according to an expert, the general public doesn’t consume foreign media outlets.

    Media access and consumption

    More than 90 per cent of German households are connected either to a satellite dish or to a cable network (Marschall, 2014: 92). TV remains the “favorite medium” of Germans reaching 80 per cent of the population daily, followed by radio (74 per cent) and the internet (46 per cent). Only 33 per cent of Germans read printed newspapers every day. An average German spends 208 minutes per day watching TV, 173 minutes – listening to the radio, 107 minutes – surfing the internet, and 23 minutes – reading daily newspapers. Around 63 per cent of the Germans use the internet daily, around 80 per cent at least occasionally. In the 14-49 age group internet usage even exceeds TV watching (Media Perspektiven, 2015). The paid circulation of daily newspapers is declining, but the usage of eBooks and ePapers in Germany grows. The most popular sources of news and information are public service broadcasters: 56 per cent watch public TV daily and 47 per cent listen to the public radio (Bavarian Broadcasting, 2016).
    Journalists’ autonomy
    Journalism education and career, salary and working conditions

    Access to the journalistic profession is unrestricted. Alexandra Borchardt described the journalism profession as “enormously varied” and said that the German journalist has a “huge range of development opportunities” in the course of his carrier. School principal Jörg Sadrozinski claimed that the classical way is a traineeship – a voluntary work in any media company, usually for the newspapers, but also for magazines, radio or TV. Very good career opportunities have students of prestigious journalism schools, such as Henri-Nannen-Schule, Deutsche Journalistenschule (DJS) or Axel-Springer-Akademie. The focal points of the training at DJS, for example, are very practice-oriented. Nevertheless, theoretical aspects, such as media law or media ethics, are taken into consideration. Graduates get a very good basic training, but no specialization. During the training students go, for example, to sports events and write about them or create an economic broadcast for the radio. So, graduates of a journalism school can work with a wide range of formats in various media from many different fields.

    According to an expert, salary has become significantly lower. An economic crisis in German media industry led to a decrease in the number of jobs. So, many journalists were forced to leave the profession and take a job in the field of public relations, for example. There are still some media companies which pay relatively well and where journalists earn an above average salary. However, wages in media sector are under pressure for the average worker, in particular for freelance journalists. TV journalists and journalists from electronic media earn generally the most, while print journalists, especially in local and regional newspapers, earn rather less. Jörg Sadrozinski claimed that online media, in particular social media, are being extended and offer actually the best career opportunities.

    Both interviewed experts described the German media as free and the media environment as very friendly for journalistic work. However, they also spoke about difficulties which journalists have to face. Very common are difficulties experienced in accessing certain interlocutors and information. Against this background, Jörg Sadrozinski emphasized that it’s very important for journalists to know about the Freedom of Information Act, their rights to demand information from authorities as well as further opportunities to get information for a deeper research. However, the Federal Ministry of the Interior has set fees and expenses for some types of requests. Thus, “use of the law has been limited, hampered by the weakness of supporting legislation and infrastructure at the regional level” (Freedom House, 2015). The DJS principal Sadrozinski also talked about internal and external constraints like limited time for research, economic pressure in media companies as well as constraints set by the society, such as the accusation “lying press”.

    Alexandra Borchardt claimed that journalism has never been a “safe job”. The job can always be dangerous, depending on how far you go. Journalists who covered demonstrations in Gorleben or Wackersdorf couldn’t feel confident in the past as well as journalists covering Pegida’s protests or investigating mafia groups nowadays. Alexandra Borchardt also said that some foreign correspondents work in dangerous areas, such as the Middle East or Africa. So, an editorial office must carefully weigh up whether correspondents should be send to these areas or not. Online-mobbing and “shitstorms” which journalists have to tolerate are not rare, too. However, Jörg Sadrozinski described the situation as “not yet worrying”.

    Journalists’ role perceptions

    The self-perception of journalists can be constructed on the basis of the two expert interviews. The German journalist is a curious person who likes to interview people, likes writing, explaining, thinking and reflecting. Both interviewed experts emphasized that German journalists want to enlighten, present facts, outline links and explain backgrounds. Jörg Sadrozinski also said that within a divided and fragmented society journalism is becoming ever increasingly important: In a society in which everyone can communicate and disseminate information journalists are “professionals” who can say: “We have precisely researched certain issues and on the basis of these analyses we have reached certain conclusions”. According to the two experts, German journalists try to be neutral information providers towards the public and fulfill their function of a country’s “fourth estate”.

    Both experts also emphasized the importance of an open discussion about problems regarding media ethics among German journalists. Even if guidelines for journalistic work and main publishing principles are formulated in the Press Code drawn by German Press Council, not all questions regarding, inter alia, the publication of photos and names can be answered unambiguously. Relating to the current refugee situation, editors have to decide, for example, whether the nationality of perpetrators or victims should be indicated or not.

    Even if the German media are free and, according to NGOs and the two interviewed experts, generally independent, the image of journalists and media in the German society is controversial. As mentioned above, thousands of people participating in anti-Islam demonstrations chanted a slogan “lying press” against journalists. A recent study found that only 49 per cent of Germans think that media reflect things as they really are. 61 per cent claim, that media suppress opinions which they deem undesirable. Nevertheless, the majority of Germans describes public TV (75 per cent) and public radio (68 per cent) as well as daily newspapers (73 per cent) and weekly newspapers and magazines (63 per cent) as credible. Alexandra Borchardt emphasized that quality media invest huge amounts of money to find reliable facts, provide quality reporting and maintain their credibility. However, Germans are not sure about the independence of the media. Only a minority of Germans believe in the independence of public TV (46 per cent), daily newspapers (44 per cent), public radio (42 per cent), and weekly newspapers and magazines (39 per cent). Nevertheless, journalists have a positive image among 79 per cent of the population. Nine of ten interviewees think that German journalists work professional and responsibly and render an important service for democracy. At the same time, 65 per cent claim that journalists in Germany cannot say what they really think. Thus, they are sometimes called “professionals with a muzzle” (Bavarian Broadcasting, 2016).
    Interviewed experts (personal on-site, remote via telephone)
    • Alexandra Borchardt, managing editor of Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ), Germany’s leading daily
    • Jörg Sadrozinski, head of the German School of Journalism in Munich
    Related Links
    Recommended citation form
    Daria Gordeeva: Germany. In: Michael Meyen (ed.), Mapping Media Freedom. LMU Munich: Department of Communication Studies and Media Research 2017. (access date)

    Pegida demonstration in Dresden. Source: BBC News.