Since the decision of the British people to leave the EU and the election of Donald Trump as new US President against the establishment, a discussion about so-called “fake news” and “hate speeches” has flared up in Germany. Does Berlin now restrain the freedom of speech?
rl. The fact that a majority-based governmental coalition of the two largest parties, SPD and CDU/CSU, under the guise of preventing “stirring up of hatred” and “lying”, want to “legally” regulate the opinion forming of a growing opposition, is considered as a dangerous development not only by many lawyers in Germany. An expression of this trend is a “slip of tongue” of CDU/CSU parliamentary leader, Michael Grosse-Brömer: “There are a lot of people on the net who want to destabilise, who spread wrong opinions, [emphasis by the author] who want to manipulate, and politics must cope with this, especially before the election campaigns” (ZDF, report from Berlin, 18 December). By this he did not think of “politics” entering into a democratic exchange of arguments, no, he provides a media template in order to be able to take “legislative” action before the German election campaign in September 2017. At the end of December, the proposal of German Federal Minister of the Interior, Thomas de Maiziere, to affiliate a media control authority to the chancellor’s office preferably before the elections, made alarm bells ring for a lot of people. Should a “Ministry of Truth” be established?
At the turn of the year, the debate in the German media subsided abruptly. The proposal to set up a censorship authority obviously went politically too far. Another way arose.
In this matter, internet platforms such as Facebook or Twitter are under particular political pressure to introduce a kind of self-censorship because they are increasingly becoming a decisive opinion-forming factor. They should prevent so-called “fake news” and “agitation” by removing admonished sites from the internet. Hurrying ahead, Facebook decided to let itself “voluntarily” be censored by a group called Correctiv. By this, Facebook itself deeply interferes with the freedom of expression. It is not known whether the corporation is taking up its own approach in China with that. The German Federal Ministry of the Interior announces that one should wait until March to see whether Facebook is effectively implementing its censorship.
Who are the censors who are to adjudicate on their fellow citizens’ statements? Who chooses them – and who pays them? The group named Correctiv and being charged by Facebook, is registered as incorporated. It mainly consists of journalists and is mainly financed from funds of a foundation from the circle of the formerly SPD-linked WAZ Media Group. Amongst others, also the controversial Open Society Foundation of US stock exchange speculator and multimillionaire George Soros lets flow money into the Correctiv’s coffers (see https://correctiv.org).
No doubt, such an approach is contrary to all legitimate democratic principles and should be abolished immediately. The German FDP politician Wolfgang Kubicki rightly urges to employ more judges and prosecutors to pursue the true criminally relevant offences. Initial official judicial judgments would quickly curb violations of law such as defamations or insults in the by now legal vacuum of the internet space.
Even in Germany, statements that incite criminal offences or that personally offend or defame someone are restricted by laws and are justiciable. In order to enforce this right, there are laws, judges and courts. Everyone can fight back if his personal rights are violated. However, the law can only be enforced by means of the rule of law. This is not always easy, but necessary.
On the other hand, the German legislature leaves great scope for expressions of opinion – for a good reason. Free formation of opinion is an important bedrock in a democracy. In turn it depends on freedom of information, freedom of the press, and finally freedom of expression. Various information and different opinions are a prerequisite in order to be able to form an own point of view and then to participate in the democratic decision-making process. Unimpeded formation of opinion is one of the fundamental characteristics of a democracy. In Germany this was, among other things, a bitter consequence of the experiences of the Third Reich.
The debate on “fake news“ and “hate speeches“ on the internet has proved to be an instrument for introducing a state censorship. Accordingly, there would then be legally determined “false“ and “correct“ political opinions. The “correct“ opinion would be the one represented by the political establishment. “False“ opinions would be those that deviate from this opinion like an exit from the euro or a restriction on immigration, for example. Obviously, even those had a false opinion who appreciated the Brexit and could not find anything worse in the election of Donald Trump than in an election of Hillary Clinton.
The events in Germany bring to mind that trying to win public opinion for a position belongs to a vivid democracy, but also that there is always a danger that the freedom of expression will be restricted for reasons of power. The fact that the political debate can also degenerate in media campaigns and propaganda has been known for decades – not only since the last presidential elections in the USA.
In the past, rumors were spread through traders or in pubs, later it was through leaflets, the newspaper, radio, TV, which contributed to the shaping of public opinion. Today internet has been added. Again and again, the freedom to spread an opinion had to be re-enforced. The new media allow us to get more information, to use interesting opposing positions or other opinions faster and wider in order to form our own opinion. – But they also spread hoaxes. And that had been so before.
A factual analysis of different opinions requires a solid general education and civic education. This certainly is an important field for the schools. Systematic knowledge acquisition, logical thinking and education in the humanistic sense are prerequisites and form a basis for critical independent thinking.
Also important are public personalities who honestly and in the sense of the common good represent their positions in a publicly comprehensible manner – and can also bear to sometimes stand alone with their opinions. With hollow phrases, obvious lies and empty promises, not only German politicians seem to drive their fellow citizens into the opposition. What is required are honesty and a sound grounding.
Political training, such as is given in Switzerland by quarterly votes and periodic elections, is not to be underestimated. The resulting healthy skepticism, combined with a constructive basic attitude to political projects, leaves little scope for radical ideas, and, on the other hand, restricts governmental abuses against the private sphere. However, a sound education, which still aims at a mature citizen, also remains the basis here. •
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