The latest anti-COVID-19 protests in Germany reveal a worrying increase in the willingness to resort to violence against journalists. Neo-Nazis and hooligans use the demonstrations to brutally attack representatives of the media under the guise of a citizen protest movement. The demonstrators and their leaders are yet to distance themselves from this violence. At times, the police appear helpless to intervene, sometimes even impeding the coverage of events, instead of firmly protecting the right to free reporting.
"If the neo-Nazis and hooligans have their way, the new normal in these times of coronavirus will include constant harassment, threats and attacks against journalists," said Christian Mihr, managing director of Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Germany. “Anyone who fails to clearly distance themselves from the violent right-wing scene during demonstrations accepts that the media can only report on certain topics at risk of life and limb. Police and security authorities must ensure effective protection for media representatives during demonstrations and enforce the basic right to freedom of the press," he added.
Attacks by "larger groups of hooligans"
During the demonstration held by the coalition "Querdenken" (lateral thinking) in Leipzig on 7 November, the German Union of Journalists (DJU) recorded no fewer than 43 attacks and disruptions to the work of journalists. In particular, photographers and cameramen reported substantial threats, jostling and attacks by "larger groups of hooligans". Media representatives were struck on the head, punched, or chased off by groups of well-known right-wing extremists.
Journalists who were involved have reported that demonstrators screamed at journalists from a close distance. They were particularly aggressive against journalists from the public media. Several media representatives removed the channel logos from their microphones to avoid being targeted. A ZDF camera team was “deliberately attacked several times" and, according to a number of accounts, was surrounded at one stage by a group of right-wing extremists; the team was only able to safely escape with the help of security services.
According to reports, the attacks were often initiated by groups led by well-known right-wing extremists from all over Germany. One journalist reported that he was in a group who had to suspend reporting for a second time because "larger groups of hooligans" were running towards them.
Right-wing extremist groups had been mobilizing extensively in the run-up to the demonstration and had travelled from all over Germany - as they had during the large-scale "Querdenken" demonstration in Berlin on August 29. The demonstration was led at times by neo-Nazis and members of the right-wing martial arts scene. Chat groups of "Querdenken" supporters celebrated when the demonstrators forcibly breached a police barrier, thus allowing the already prohibited march to proceed to the inner city ring road. The organizers of the protest were apparently willing to accept this use of violence - it fits into their strategy of staging the protest as self-empowerment against a perceived "Corona dictatorship".
Even before the main rally began, the police had detained and recorded the personal details of around a dozen members of the press at the main train station, thereby temporarily impeding their work. At the rally itself, it is said that the police either failed or were slow to intervene when the media were being attacked. One journalist is said to have been threatened with being ejected and taken into custody by the police, forcing him to stop his work.
Organized groups are attempting to isolate media representatives
Already during a "Querdenken" demonstration in Dresden on October 31, groups of neo-Nazis and hooligans had harassed and even downright hounded media workers. Johannes Filous from Straßengezwitscher, which publishes on Twitter, described how a group of no less than six young men in hoods had "very specifically" targeted him, pursuing and attempting to isolate him. Similar incidents were reported by the freelance journalist Henrik Merker, who writes for the Störungsmelder blog on Zeit.de. It is reported that the police did not intervene. The national director of the German Journalists' Association Lars Radau spoke of "targeted and organized threats" against media representatives.
The latest events have underlined a trend that started months ago: journalists are routinely harassed, threatened or obstructed during protests against the government's COVID-19 measures. In Berlin alone, DJU have recorded more than 100 such incidents at COVID-19 related protests in the past six months. Around ten of these cases are said to involve media workers who were kicked or beaten. There have also been reports of abuse and harassment of female photographers or camera teams, and even death threats against reporters.
Germany ranks 11th out of 180 countries in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index 2020.