One thing that we really found interesting is the fact that freedom of expression is even more protected here than it is in our home country. For example, unlike the United States, denying the Holocaust is a criminal offense there. Also, freedom of the press goes further in the USA than in Germany: there, it is quite normal to send the shortened and edited transcription of an interview to the interviewee for authorization before publication. This way they can check if the final print version of the interview stays true to what they meant in the actual conversation. If the interviewer and interviewee disagree, however, the interviewer still has the final say on what to publish. This procedure is not a legal obligation, but a common practice. We were surprised to learn that this is quite unusual in America. (Here, however, some journalists might refrain from publishing parts of an interview for fear of being sued. This, too, could have an impact on press freedom.)
As in the United States, fake news has increased in recent years in Germany. Especially during the pandemic, many people have started to mistrust public broadcasters. Although public television and radio channels strive to be as politically independent as possible, they are often accused of reporting too uncritically of the government. Commercial broadcasters, on the other hand, have a different credibility problem: In order to compete with heavily funded public news outlets, the headlines and push messages of many private media companies are becoming increasingly sinister. By appealing to the sensationalism of readers and viewers, some hope to obtain more subscriptions or higher ratings. This is very dangerous: Many people do not read the entire article or watch the entire video, but only see the title. Thus, unwittingly, television stations and newspapers can contribute to negatively influence public opinion and divide society.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, however, many viewers turned to commercial broadcasters, which are not funded by the German government. Some assumed that their reports could be more independent. And, indeed, many commercial news outlets have been unafraid to criticize federal government decisions regarding the pandemic response, some of them quite harshly. In a democracy, it is essential to have a variety of opinions and independent sources of information to draw from.
However, many people who were critical of the government’s crisis management began to search for information and alternative news on social media. Many of them, including vaccine skeptics and conspiracy theorists, have gathered on the Telegram messaging app to share questionable articles and studies. While big tech companies like Facebook or Twitter are legally obliged to report and/or remove false information, the German state has so far had no recourse against Telegram. The company is based in Dubai. Several attempts by the government to contact Telegram operators have failed. The fact that more and more people are looking for alternative information on these platforms instead of relying on quality media is a massive threat. Commercial and public television channels as well as radio stations and newspapers struggle to regain the trust of this group of readers. Otherwise, our democracy could be at stake.