ROSTOCK REALITY REPORTS
German media performance in reporting on the G8 summit. Aspects of the political analysis of the DJU (German Journalist Union)1 concerning journalistic misrepresentation of facts and misinformation
The dramaturgical introduction of the quotation differed greatly from article to article. In one instance a “speaker incited a militant scene” on the assembly stage. In another interpretation according to the police “only one of the 3,000 militants” climbed the stage, while elsewhere “militants” had to first conquer the stage before a journalistic showdown finally occurred. Some reporters simply wanted “a man talking over a megaphone” or “through the speakers,” while the others were seen by the author of the quotation as the simple abrupt shout of an “autonomist” or simply “militants.” The journalists’ imagination obviously showed no limits that day, 2 July 2007. Whether quoted in the Bild, Ostsee Zeitung, Spiegel-Online, Stern, Münchner Abendzeitung or Stuttgarter Nachrichten, the following quote was identical: “We must bring the war into our demonstrations.” This sentence was in the words of many journalists regarded as the ultimate proof of the Black Bloc autonomists’ readiness for violence, of a so far unknown brutality or simply for the “battle of Rostock” – such article titles were written in big letters above articles about international demonstrations against the approaching G-8 summit in Heiligendamm. Journalists used the quotation in this form in their news items and in specially marked features and covered topics as well as in their own stories and reports. This sensitive quotation was informatively incorporated into reporting and published as journalistic research without adding any agency abbreviations or references. Following the first few uses, the quotation was reproduced worldwide in millions of copies, often with the additional remark: “We will achieve nothing by peaceful means.” Information from which the two cited sentences arose was of course, concealed to the reader. Not all the journalists who used the quotation did prior research into the quality of the source so as to suggest closeness when covering an event and the greatest possible authenticity and credibility of their work – a common practice in many cases of daily reporting. Not one journalist could have heard the quotation themselves, neither the reporter on the spot nor report and feature writers in editorial offices worldwide.
Why? The quotation contains a crucial journalistic mistake: it was made up. Only those connected to the stigma attached to this in fact false reporting, refused to let the matter rest. This is not the only example of professional media failure in Rostock and Heiligendamm. Only a minimal expenditure of time would have been required for the Rostock journalists to find out that same evening that the quotation had never existed. Also the question of whose mouth the invented sentence was placed in and what the person at the closing manifestation said in reality would have needed no complex investigative research. This could have also been verified by all those journalists or editors who were not present at the event – and should actually be a requirement in reporting anyway. On Saturday evening within a matter of hours, amateur videos and reports covering the closing manifestation had been placed on the Internet, launching the dubious quotation into the realms of the imaginations of its authors, or better said “its author.” The German news agency (DPA) quoted the eminent Philippine sociologist and university professor Walden Bello on Saturday at 6.41 p.m. during the report as follows: “Around 5.30 p.m. the first cars were set on fire, meanwhile near the crime scene on the manifestation stage a speaker incited the militants with clear words: ‘We must bring the war into the demonstrations. We will achieve nothing by peaceful means.’“
Those standing in the square at the precise time the situation escalated listening to Walter Bello, Alternative Nobel prizewinner and famous globalization critic could hear his words loud and clear. In his speech, in which he dealt with the war in Iraq and the political discourse of the Gleneagles G8 Summit in 2005, Bello said “Two years ago they said: Do not bring war into this discussion. Concentrate on fighting poverty. But we say: We have to bring war into this meeting – because without peace there can be no justice.” How this sentence (which has been known in the English language for years): “Without peace there can be no justice” was transformed into the German sentence: “We will achieve nothing by peaceful means,” has to this day remained a secret of the German press agency (DPA). In the same evening, a further correspondence report by the German press agency (DPA) from Rostock said: “One of the speakers called for ‘war’ against the police over a loudspeaker.” In reports, online chronicles and coverage of the escalation of violence, DPA’s misinformation was often embellished even more. An example from the Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung: “’We must bring the war into this demonstration!’ a young man shouts into a megaphone, but at the front there are still colourful characters of the left wing on the stage, swearing on the other world and speaking of a lovely event.” Reporters from the Ostsee Zeitung described the scene in an even more dramatic way: “Militants have apparently already conquered the stage. ‘Let’s remember Genoa …’, the words sound full of hate,” so as to literally supplement both sentences regarding false coverage of the German press agency (DPA).
The event lasted three long days and quite a few more reports were presented, adjusted and enriched with yet new statements, attempting to present the invented sentences as a translation error made by the organizers, allowing the German press agency (DPA) to finally clarify its own quotation: “This formulation was neither expressed in the English original contribution nor in its German translation.” Any correction or apology from all those media, which had not doubted the credibility of the German press agency (DPA) source and without implying clear journalistic guidelines had freely used the quote, was merely an exception. Instead of using the misinterpretation and the structure of its millionfold copy as an opportunity to have a political discussion about the consequences of such acts, the DPA as the author even today refuses to take an active part in clarifying the matter. The agency in fact decided not to inform its clients of the structural grounds of why its work had been defective. The DPA editor in chief declined to participate in a state committee discussion organized by dju about the quality of G-8 media coverage in Heiligendamm. At the end of the event, one of the leading DPA correspondents who had attended the event stated that DPA does not make its internal analysis of the causes and errors public. And that was not all – the German press agency (DPA) has to this day denied the University of Applied Sciences in Bremen the use of the agency’s media coverage of the G-8 summit for their research work on media in politics. The misleading information given by the DPA can regrettably not be evaluated as an unfortunate and one-time mishap at a G-8 summit. The errors and the media’s failure in reality reflect a structural problem: this regards real working conditions in publishing houses and news offices because of significant staff reductions as well as the erosion of the self-image of professional journalism when dealing with or managing sources of information from the authorities. In Rostock and Heiligendamm, this resulted in subsequent slips by agencies and journalists. An author of numerous false facts was also the press office of the “Kavala” police special intervention forces in Rostock; its work was analyzed in the recently printed publication of the Association of Republican Lawyers – Republikanische Anwältinnen- und Anwältevereins (RAV) – which labelled the presented “Hateful picture of demonstrators” as an intentional misinformation policy.2
Misleading police reports, which incidentally present a serious violation of the obligation of executive administrative bodies to distribute truthful and real information, can acquire significance when taken at face value by news agencies such as DPA and the like without further research. In this way most television and radio broadcasts, and newspapers and magazines spoke of at least 25 alleged seriously injured individuals and a total of 433 injured police officers without any listing of sources.
Shortly after the conflicts at the end of the manifestation in the Rostock port, the numbers of seriously injured officers in the Kavala press office news ticker (used in numerous media, usually presented on the television screen, providing continuous updates of the hottest short news stories of the moment throughout the world) shot up within a few hours from over 100 to 433. The Kavala press office included all officers who had called in unfit for duty for more than a day. Interior Minister Caffier had to admit in the ministry’s statement weeks later on June 28, 2007, that the registration of seriously injured individuals proved to be difficult due to the events and the necessary resting phase, and that the number of injured officers had to be corrected in the period that followed. In press statements on June 2 and 3, 2007, these difficulties were of course not mentioned. False numbers appeared again in almost all media reports and have remained present until today on the web sites of eminent publishing houses. Only after the inquiry of a junge Welt journalist was it proven after a few days that only two officers had been treated at hospitals. Thus, only two cases could be characterized as involving “severely injured” persons. This led to the expansion of identical (erroneous) facts about the events at the Baltic Sea to the consumers of various media products. The especially large numbers of injured individuals in combination with the extent of damage and non-existence of journalistic research of more important information proved the complex situation to be merely a media created scenario of the “Rostock riots.” Everyone who opened a newspaper on Sunday or Monday in Münich, Bern or Wanne-Eickel had to assume that Rostock was in ruins. The trail of destruction was discussed as if it were a warlike situation. The next day, large material damage was described with over a million euros of damage on Rostock city facilities alone, with private properties and companies not yet included. Ultimately, the actual damage was officially declared to be only several ten thousands of euros.
Medial unification in the media coverage from June 2, 2007, was especially a consequence of the reduction of sources. An invented quotation, false data on severely injured police officers and other false facts reinforced the media’s representation of “the battle of Rostock.” A few days after the demonstration, a nearly uniform explanation and evaluation of the events took root in the media worldwide. Topographic classification of the situation could have thereby provided a considerably more realistic evaluation. The conflicts between the demonstrators and the police took place within a relatively small area of the port on the edge of the manifestation spot, at a junction and a road section, about 250m in length. Because of the massive water cannon intervention used to disperse the demonstrators, the dispute spread to the main manifestation area for a short time. Nevertheless, only a small number of media representatives could answer the journalistic question concerning the location of the event. Many media consumers worldwide, who otherwise had no other sources at their disposal, were thus left with the impression that half of Rostock was in flames, especially because in most news reports “cars” burned and the number “two” was generally omitted. Only a few exceptions regarding the reproduction of the misleading information can be found in which reporters wrote refined articles based on good journalistic research and a variety of sources. Lack of research combined with a non-critical acceptance of presented facts and opinions of state authorities were decisive for the situation. Anonymous representatives of the police department were reported as being “key witnesses” in many cases of false information – which also gives rise to concern.
A real gap exists in reports regarding the massive use of various gases and sprays by special police units: CN gas (in water from the water cannons), pepper spray (made from chilli extracts, with spray cans often used in arrests) and CS nerve/tear gas (stored in cartridges and aimed at targets). CS gas is a nerve/tear gas, which is fatal especially for allergic people or it quickly leads to anaphylactic shock. Use of this nerve gas is prohibited by international law, however it is still being used by police officers against domestic political opponents in many countries. For example, two citizens of the Upper Palatinate region were killed this way during a 1986 Wackersdorf protest against a planned nuclear reprocessing plant. Hundreds of patients complained of discomfort such as rash, breathing difficulties, vertigo and nervous disorders weeks and months later. Not a single article has been found so far, which for example presents a critical view of tear gas and CS gas use against thousands of people in Rostock. If this situation and its political implications were investigated, the reason for the large number of injured people among officers and demonstrators would probably be properly assessed. The majority of officers were injured as a consequence of “friendly fire” by tear gas and CS gas according to the statements of paramedics. On Wednesday, June 6, 2007, when the long-planned “Block G8” blockage began, police reports circulating in the official press centre in Kühlungsborn reported that there were armed disguised individuals throwing stones in the midst of the blockade. This news was broadcasted by the Kavala press office and presented in a news ticker around 6.16 p.m. Under the headline, the broadcasted press release PM 80 from 6 June literally stated: “Participants of the forbidden event are arming themselves at the “Galopprennbahn” checkpoint: the Rostock police department’s Special Structural Organization (BAO) Kavala reported that participants of the group at the ‘Galopprennbahn’ checkpoint are changing their clothes, disguising themselves and are wearing protective clothing, arming themselves with Molotov cocktails and stones.” The report goes on: “Police Chief Knut Abramowski appealed urgently to all individuals at the “Galopprennbahn” checkpoint to isolate themselves from the offenders. ‘Do not protect or guard the offenders’, said Abramowski.”
What political conclusions should we draw from these journalistic mistakes? How could it come to such a mass reproduction of false reports and why didn’t the media pursue their role of independent control over state power and use their own research methods in a critical way? An important aspect is the media’s opportunism in dealing with the question of violence; the media arbitrarily used classification and separation of “perpetrators of violence” and “peaceful demonstrators,” with this remaining the predominant media pivot in estimating the protest. Non-critical adoption of stereotypes by a large majority of the media already before the summit in June and labelling of the summit’s opponents intensified even more through raids against the protest movement pursuant to Article 129a3 of the German Criminal Code in May. This significantly elevated the journalists’ readiness to report uncritically, also during the days of the summit, and to utilize unverified information from the police. In the course of this, the head of Kavala warned against “perpetrators of violence” months before the summit in numerous interviews, meetings in the Rostock region and in brochures, explaining that blockades would not be tolerated. He always identified blockades with violence. During preparations for the summit protests, the blockades of the access path to the Heiligendamm G8 summit, which were publicly announced as legitimate forms of civil disobedience, were characterized by the police as a “criminal offence,” and would be prohibited by all possible means. When the demonstration ban inside the red zone at the security fence could not be enforced despite massive police intervention against around ten thousand demonstrators and the blockades could not be eliminated “by constitutional means,” as Police Chief Abramowski put it in his speech at the closing press conference, the concept of “peaceful images” prevailed within the police and media. This new media interpretation of the events does not match the facts: most severe injuries among the demonstrators occurred on Thursday during the removal of blockades at the west gate of the security fence. Already on Wednesday during the demonstrator march into the forbidden red zone, massive police interventions with gas, water cannons, pepper sprays and bats were carried out, which lead to numerous injuries among demonstrators. However, almost nobody reported on these “non-peaceful images.”
Journalistic work, which observes both professional criteria for research as well as a clear distinction between reporting and commentary, precisely from the view of presenting facts, should present facts which may initially appear to be contradictory. Since the days of National Socialist Germany in contrast to the Anglo-Saxon journalistic tradition, the culture of reporting, which depicts reality bluntly, and separates from it its own evaluation and political position determination as well as comments making it comprehensible to the reader, has been non-existent in German media. The trend of event, scandal or entertainment journalism makes complex situations personal in order to get high circulation figures and ratings, cuts them out and takes them out of context, also helping to make mixture of reporting and comments even more dominant. In preemptive obedience to state authorities, there is an increasing tendency of the German media to not treat certain persons or groups, who allegedly break democratic discourse rules made by the government, as serious dialog partners according to objective and impartial journalistic research and reporting criteria. Precisely the fact of how quickly “perpetrators of violence” can become “peaceful blockaders” and the other way round, should urge journalists not to use the question of criminal law as a rule for the general exclusion of persons or stigmatization of social contradictions. This is all the more true, because state authorities themselves played a key role in propagating false information and with state authorities themselves creating the starting point for factual disinformation to the large share of Rostock and Heiligendamm public. Construction of the temporary intervention centre Kavala, made especially for the summit, was not until today the subject of intensive coverage. It was indicated beforehand that a special structure was created or better, a centre of power in the grey area, which escaped parliament control and (still) imperative separation - according to the constitution - of the police, armed forces and intelligence service. The separation order was one of the crucial consequences of National Socialism and represents in the current issues on security, one of the most sensitive media political discussions between freedom of press and state supervision. Thus for example, the German armed forces intervention was already announced in the run-up to the summit and visible to everyone in the days before the official commencement with the presence of armoured vehicles, soldiers and tornados.4 Nevertheless, only non-commercial media research and parliamentary investigation led to the problematic constitutional question of the dubious use of tornados and armoured scout vehicles against demonstrators and more intensive coverage thereof. Previous analysis of reporting also refers to the meaning of the existence of the non-commercial media centres and protest movement bloggers. These projects are not bound to independence, and yet precisely these projects were able to publish well-researched and verifiable facts in the time of the summit and thereby unmask false information given by the commercial media.
Particularly the variable quality of journalistic education should also be discussed as a consequence resulting from mistakes of G-8 reporting. Nowadays, the established practice of quality in eminent journalism schools and colleges plays barely any role in the education of many publishing houses and their own work methods. From the point of view of journalistic research criteria as well as independent and critical reporting, the concrete failure of the German media can by all means be discussed and analyzed as an expression of the structural problems of topical journalism. This concerns massive staff reductions and with it, a drastic decrease in working conditions in many publishing houses and news offices as well as the self-conception of professional journalism.1 See additional information about political analysis of the dju at www.dju-bayern.de
2 Republican Lawyers Association/ Legal Team “Feindbild Demonstrant – Polizeigewalt, Militäreinsatz, Medienmanipulation. Der 8-Gipfel aus Sicht des Anwaltlichen Notdienstes” ISBN 78-33-935936-668-22 (Publisher Assoziation A, December 2007).
3 Section 129a of the German Criminal Code was introduced in the German law in 1976. On it is based the prohibition of “founding of, membership in or support of a terrorist organization” Section 129a investigations are typically used by the federal police to gather information about activists and protesters, as well as to intimidate them.
4 German fighting military aircrafts.