Is there a copyright on an interview as a linguistic work, and do interviewees have to put up with it if a media outlet uses the interview despite objections and, on top of that, spreads false allegations? This is the issue in the legal dispute between freelance Syria correspondent Karin Leukefeld and Westdeutscher Rundfunk (West German Broadcasting Cologne, WDR).
For a radio feature produced by author Marc Thörner on behalf of WDR for all ARD broadcasters, the latter had contacted Middle East correspondent Karin Leukefeld with an interview request via e-Mail in August 2019. Leukefeld has been reporting from Syria for various German-language media for almost ten years and is the only German correspondent accredited in Syria. Because of her many years of experience as a journalist and her expertise as a correspondent who is actually on the ground talking to the local population, it seemed only right to request Karin Leukefeld as an interlocutor to discuss the future of Syria.
Regarding the questions, Thörner wrote in advance that he wanted Leukefeld’s “assessment of Syrian domestic policy, especially reconciliation policy. Secondly, it is about how you assess German foreign policy with regard to Syria, also the image of Syria in the German media”. The Middle East correspondent, who in the past had also produced contributions for WDR, among others, agreed and prepared herself for the topics mentioned. However, Karin Leukefeld told SNA News that she became suspicious during the recording of the 40-minute Skype interview. Some topics did not come up at all, while others that had not been agreed upon were persistently asked about.
“One point that made me suspicious during the interview was the topic: the German media’s view of the Syria conflict. I can say a lot about that. But he said: You write for “Junge Welt” and for Russia Today RT. He classifies RT on the right, “Junge Welt” on the far left. He also said: Do you not notice that your argumentation is similar to that of the AfD? Then I said: Listen, one is a party, and I am a correspondent on the ground. You yourself are also a correspondent, and you know that you report what you hear and see on the ground and try to convey that to the public in Germany. That has nothing whatsoever to do with the position of any party,” said Leukefeld. Thörner nevertheless kept on probing until she finally said that she would not say anything more about it. “He wanted me to distance myself from the AfD. I said I am a journalist and do not have to distance myself from any politicians’ opinions. At that point I became suspicious.”
The unease she felt during the interview, which she also expressed in part, led her to ask by e-mail after the interview which parts of the conversation the author wanted to use for his radio feature, combined with the request to be able to authorise them in their respective context beforehand. Thörner refused, whereupon she informed him and the radio station that she was withdrawing her consent for the use of her interview, the Syria correspondent said.
Publication with false allegation
Despite Leukefeld’s explicit objection, including her reasons, the radio feature was published on 26 February 2020 and broadcast nationwide on ARD radio stations. For a long time, the feature was also available in the media libraries of the public broadcasters, albeit with a preceding counterstatement, which Karin Leukefeld was able to obtain. The counterstatement refers to this passage in the feature, in which author Thörner states:
“Soon after our conversation, Karin Leukefeld surprised me with an e-mail. She wants the passages about the SSNP and their suicide attacks deleted from the interview. When I refuse because that does not meet journalistic standards, she wants to withdraw the entire interview.”
An outright false claim, as can be seen from the journalist’s statement of claim. At no point had Leukefeld linked the withdrawal of her interview to passages about the Syrian opposition party SSNP. In fact, after Thörner refused to comment on which passages he wanted to use, she had merely written in justification of her refusal that she did not know his manuscript and did not know which of her statements were to be taken over and in which context. Since Thörner did not want to or could not comment on this, she withdrew her consent.
After some time, the feature disappeared from the ARD media libraries, but the transcript remained available on the WDR site for another while. A year later, both, the radio feature and the transcript are no longer available in the ARD media library. References to the programme are accompanied by the sentence: “Due to an ongoing legal clarification, this programme cannot currently be listened to.” Press announcements at WDR can still be viewed.
The internet forgets nothing
The fact that the feature is no longer available in the media libraries should be little consolation because, as we know, the internet forgets nothing. Even a brief query via a web archive brings the work in question to light again, just as it was broadcast. Listening to Thörner’s almost one-hour contribution, it is noticeable from the beginning that a certain atmosphere is to be created with diverse background noises and audio effects, an atmosphere against the background of which the author spreads his narrative of Assad’s “new Syrian empire”. Original sounds from the 40-minute interview with Karin Leukefeld appear in small snippets taken out of context. Several times they are spliced together with statements by AfD politician Christian Blex, as if this were a natural alliance. By contrast, hardly anything remains of her expertise on Syria’s possible future.
When she first heard the feature, it became clear to her that author Marc Thörner had a completely different idea for his presentation than he had conveyed to her when she asked for an interview, Karin Leukefeld recalls. He was not concerned with the question of what the future of Syria would look like, but had a specific image of how he wanted to portray it.
On the one hand, Thörner did not bother to explain the background, such as the formation and composition of the Syrian opposition party SSNP. On the other hand, he used the usual images of good and evil, with the usual suspects, such as the evil ruler Assad, the evil Hizbullah, and the evil accomplices Russia and Iran.
“I think he already had a framework in which direction it should go – martyrs, Islamists, Nazis. I think the only reason I was brought into it was to discredit me. Because he did not need me at all for the idea of how he portrays the alleged new Syrian empire of Bashar al-Assad. For that, he needed the aforementioned martyrs, Islamists and Nazis. But I, as a journalist, had no function at all for this portrayal. I think the only reason why he interviewed me was that he wanted to mix me in somehow, because as a journalist I have been exposed to a lot of criticism for reporting from Syria for almost ten years. I think he wanted to add to that.”
Leukefeld goes to court
In May 2020, Karin Leukefeld filed a lawsuit against WDR at the Cologne Regional Court. The core issues here were the extent to which WDR was allowed to use her interview, despite Leukefeld’s objection, and the false allegation regarding Leukefeld’s reason for withdrawing the interview. More than a year later, the parties met in court last Thursday.
As Karin Leukefeld told SNA afterwards, the judge did not follow her lawyers’ argumentation that the interview as a work of speech is subject to copyright protection. The legal situation here is not entirely clear, the experienced journalist explains.
“The standard is actually that you have the conversation with the interviewee and then you say: before I publish this, I submit it to you and you authorise it. That is my standard, how I always do it, and I know it from other colleagues as well. But there is obviously no legal stipulation on this. There are numerous legal disputes on this matter. Always in cases where the interviewee is under the impression, or can also prove, that the use of the original recording was in a completely different context.”
On the other hand, in the other central point of contention, namely the reason for her withdrawal, the judge had said quite clearly that this could not be inferred from the correspondence. “That is what Mr. Thörner made up and that is a false allegation, I would be right about that.”
After a short break in negotiations with intensive consultations, WDR had submitted a proposal for amicability, which she had accepted, Leukefeld said. However, this still had to be agreed internally at WDR and would therefore only be ready for a decision in a few weeks.
One day after the hearing, we wrote to the law firm representing WDR to also give them the opportunity to comment on the facts of the case. By the time of going to press (2 June), we had not received a reply. •
(Translation Current Concerns)
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