Freedom of the Press “Self-censorship” in German Editorial Offices

Newspapers

Censorship of the press is not permitted under Germany’s Basic Law. Nonetheless, journalists have imposed ethical standards on themselves in the form of the German Press Code. In everyday journalistic work, conflicts repeatedly arise for which this set of regulations is unable to supply any unequivocal answer, meaning that editors frequently have to come up with solutions themselves.

A defendant jumps up during the trial and shoots first at the judge with a revolver, but misses. He then fires three bullets at the prosecutor, wounding him so seriously that the man dies on the way to hospital. This eleventh of January 2012 is a day that provokes outrage in Dachau District Court and the entire area of greater Munich.

A grey area in terms of press ethics

The next day, the incident features in local newspapers, and the surviving judge is named. Sueddeutsche.de editor-in-chief Stefan Plöchinger and his team are also going to report the story. They have to decide whether to publish the judge’s name in full on the Internet or merely to release an abbreviated form – something of a grey area in terms of press ethics.

If the judge is viewed as a well-known local figure, it is legitimate to name him, and this is how several local newspapers decided to deal with the matter. It can be argued that the archives of small local newspapers are not immediately accessible to everyone, meaning that the judge’s right to privacy was maintained beyond the sphere in which he was known to many people in any case. Sueddeutsche.de, on the other hand, has considerable reach in Germany and can be read online anywhere in the world. According to the Press Code, “(…) persons involved in the work of the judiciary, such as judges, prosecutors, lawyers, experts” should not as a rule be identified in the press “when they are acting in a professional capacity”.

Plöchinger wants to protect the judge’s identity, and he and his colleagues decide only to publish his name in abbreviated form. “The Internet does not constitute a local and temporary public sphere, but one that is unlimited in terms of space and time”, explains Plöchinger.

Challenges for digital journalism

Although the basic principles of the Press Code also apply to digital journalism, it is necessary “to adapt the regulations to the specific sphere of one’s own medium”, says Plöchinger.

The original version of the Press Code dates back to 1973. It enshrines the basic journalistic principles laid down by the German Press Council, which essentially include showing respect for the truth, preserving human dignity and supplying accurate information to the public, as well as due diligence. In upholding these principles, the Press Council invites the general public to file complaints about reporting in the press – anyone is entitled to complain.

The principles also include the obligation of the press to respect people’s privacy, not to use dishonest means of procuring information, and not to feature inappropriate brutality in its reporting.

The Press Code provides a guiding framework within which editors can design their own rules for self-censorship. The way in which the regulations are perceived, and their urgency, can differ depending on the particular case and medium. The way privacy is perceived, for instance, is increasingly changing because the Internet is available everywhere. As Plöchinger explains, every medium on the Internet and thus every person who is mentioned there is potentially global. “Just because other local media do not take this into account on the Internet does not release me from my responsibility – quite the contrary. Some readers will thank us for our reserve, and we will be thankful that we have such readers.”

Part and parcel of adapting to the Internet era also involves explaining delicate matters to readers, as Sueddeutsche.de did when the Norwegian Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 people in Oslo and Utøya in July 2011. Following lengthy internal debate, the editorial team decided to show photographs of Breivik, accompanying them with detailed explanations on the SZblog editorial blog.

Authors must take the first moral decision themselves

Whether an editorial office decides against publishing certain information depends not least on the way it perceives its own moral obligations and the orientation of its medium, as a look further north reveals: “We printed Behring Breivik’s photograph just once and then never again”, says Lars Haider, editor-in-chief at Hamburger Abendblatt. “We did not wish to provide the man with a forum.”

A major North German regional newspaper, Hamburger Abendblatt has always styled itself as a family newspaper. “We generally publish no photos of criminals or their victims, and in any case would have to obscure their identities by pixelating the image”, says Lars Haider.

When handling sensitive issues, Haider’s approach is determined by a handy rule of thumb: “Always consider whether you would wish to read the article if it were about you.”

In case of doubt, says Stefan Plöchinger, one can after all always fall back on that tried-and-tested method: choosing not to publish.