Freedom of the Press in Germany In Europe average

Access to information is key for press freedom
Access to information is key for press freedom | Photo (detail): © Petra Bork/pixelio.de

From a global point of view freedom of the press in Germany ranks way up there at the top. On a European level, however, countries like Finland, The Netherlands and Norway have taken the lead.

Freedom of the press embraces so much - it is a human right, enshrined in Article 19 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Freedom of the press ensures the journalistic freedom to report on events, and also the freedom of every individual to obtain information from independent sources. Every year since 2002 Reporters Sans Frontières (Reporters Without Borders), a France-based international non-governmental organization, has tried to quantify how much freedom of the press prevails in the countries of the world.

According to the ranking list for years now the Federal Republic of Germany has not managed to fare better than average from a European point of view. In global terms, however, it ranks 17th from a total of 179 states. At the top of the list we find countries like Finland - in first place at the moment - followed by The Netherlands and Norway. Viewed on a global level Germany could be said to be way up at the top, but on a European level there are quite a few countries ahead of it.

In order to compile its ranking list Reporters Without Borders sends a comprehensive questionnaire to various non-governmental organisations, to its own network of correspondents and to other journalists, scientists, legal experts and human rights activists. The questionnaire is divided into six topic sections, the results of which then contribute to the formation of the ranking list. The topics are the working conditions for journalists, the general situation of the media, pluralism and editorial independence, the gathering of information on human rights violations, legal requirements and legal practice, as well as the Internet and technical resources - all areas, one might think, in which Germany would fare well.

Dwindling variety

Reporters Without Borders, however, sees things quite differently - at least when it comes to the obligation of authorities to provide information and media pluralism.

“One of the most serious problems concerning the freedom of the press in Germany is the increasing media concentration and the dwindling variety,” says Christian Mihr, CEO of the German Reporters Without Borders.

Fewer and fewer print media are working with a complete editorial staff, who put together a major part of the content. The number of daily newspapers is dwindling. Back in the year 2002 there were 385 dailies in Germany, in 2013 there were only 329 - and that with a population of about 81 million people. In comparison, in Finland at the moment, with its population of only 5.4 million people, there are 53 dailies. Whereas in Finland there is almost one newspaper (0.98) for every 100,000 people, in Germany it is not even half a newspaper for 100,000 people (0.4).

If the number and variety of print media dwindles, the number of opportunities an individual has to obtain information also dwindles. This has a negative effect on the freedom of the press.

In Germany access to information is difficult

There is also further criticism of the lacking transparency on the part of the German authorities. In the Scandinavian countries, in particular, for quite some time now freedom of information laws have been in force - laws that are aimed at facilitating access to information for the people. Sweden is considered to be the first country in the world that enshrined the freedom of the press in its constitution in 1766. This provided a “Principle of Public Access” which included access to information from public authorities from the beginning.

The German counterpart to this law did not however come into force until 2006 and according to Reporters Without Borders is one of the weakest seen from a global point of view. As Mihr put it, “Because it all takes too long”. It can take up to 30 days for information to actually become available. Furthermore in Germany they also charge fees to try to put people off. One single piece of information can cost up to 500 euros, for example, for copies or transcripts of documents. In Sweden, on the other hand, at the moment placed tenth on the list, information is almost always free of charge. “Above all in northern Europe and also in New Zealand the freedom of information laws are much stronger than in Germany. It is just not part of our culture yet for authorities to simply hand out information.”

“Grumbling at luxury level”

Finland – at the top of the list - was the first country in the world in 2010 to make a broadband internet connection a fundamental constitutional right, making it even easier for people to obtain comprehensive information. Germany does not have a law like this - even if the easiest access to information possible is also an integral part of having a free press.

Compared globally, however, the differences between Germany and the countries up at the top of the list are in fact marginal. “In the end it is actually a case of grumbling at luxury level”, says Mihr. “From a global point of view Germany’s position in the ranking list is in fact not bad at all.”