Press Freedom - Bertelsmann SE & Co. KGaA

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RTLGroup | Cologne, 10/25/2016

Press Freedom

TV journalism is about juggling with time. Decisions about content are made by the second.
Head of News Renate Friedrich in conversation with Carsten Lueb, a frontline reporter (and her husband).
Reporter Nadja Kriewald films all over the world, often under difficult conditions.
Elke Grohs is putting together a news special on potential terrorism at tourist destinations.
All the news comes together in the main broadcast studio.

Subject: Media & Services
Category: Project

In many countries around the world, press freedom is a daily challenge. By contrast, journalists in Germany are in a privileged situation: here, freedom of expression is a fundamentally respected and protected value. And yet even in Germany, journalism encounters resistance on a daily basis. A visit to the Cologne news channel N-TV shows what form this takes and how our colleagues handle it.

Late one afternoon, N-TV Editor - in-Chief Sonja Schwetje is sitting at her desk in Cologne in an office with a picture window overlooking the Rhine and the Cologne Cathedral. The river flows slowly and turbidly from left to right; pedestrians, dogs and strollers dot the shore; but Sonja Schwetje is focused on her screen, her mouse flitting back and forth when six men in black suits appear before her glass door.

In some other countries, this might be a moment when your heart skips a beat. In China, say, or Turkey, Mexico, Saudi Arabia or the many other countries worldwide that Reporters without Borders have recently accused of serious violations of press freedom. Kidnapping, prison, torture and even murder – these are all occupational hazards for colleagues working around the globe.

Sonja Schwetje and the freedom of her editorial team are not in danger this afternoon. It is a visit by a group of priests from Cologne’s Domradio (Cathedral Radio). They wear black shirts with dog collars and friendly smiles, and spend an hour fully engrossed in the mechanics of the news channel, which is part of Mediengruppe RTL Deutschland. N-TV broadcasts 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Its average viewer is male, in the prime of life and has a successful career.

The Editor-in-Chief is wearing jeans, a blazer and sneakers. She gestures when speaking, as if to give her words extra impetus. For Press Freedom Day, she tells us, she has written a text that includes the line: "Sometimes you are almost ashamed at how comfortable life as a journalist is in Germany, where freedom and the expression of opinion are fundamentally respected and protected values." And precisely therein lies the danger, she says: "We must not become lazy or negligent in our permanent vigilance."

Permanent Vigilance

Just a few steps away, across the hallway, is the office of Renate Friedrich, Head of News. At 8:15 a.m. the news day began with the morning conference, with over a dozen participants crammed into its 160 square feet. In the conference they are discussing what they are going to show the channel’s five million viewers that day.

The day’s lead story was not in the schedule and appeared overnight. According to the tabloid "Bild," Islamist terrorists are planning attacks on European tourist resorts. "We have to run it," the Berlin studio says over the phone. "The paper usually has excellent information. I’ll check my sources."

The conference participants want to make the terrorist story the lead item for the lunchtime special bulletin. Sonja Schwetje suggests opening with a judgment on paternity tests at the Federal Constitutional Court: Can children force putative fathers to take a test? After a discussion, they jointly opt for the terrorism story. "I have good people with experience and a sense of responsibility," says Sonja Schwetje. "I don’t have to decide everything alone."

Freedom and Responsibility

The principle of freedom and responsibility is alive at all levels at Bertelsmann. Reinhard Mohn, Bertelsmann’s postwar founder, gave the editorial teams of his media empire extraordinary freedom. At Bertelsmann the "editor-in-chief principle" is still iron-clad: editors decide what content they research and how they evaluate, produce and disseminate it, autonomously and independently of CEOs and commercial ownership.

"This is true even for the reporters on the ground, whom we encourage to have opinions and to represent them professionally," says Sonja Schwetje. "Everyone has this freedom, but also feels the responsibility they have to do sound journalistic work. All of us here live and breathe this, and younger or new colleagues get it very quickly."

The conference is over, the team swarms out, including Managing Editor Elke Grohs, who is responsible for the news special on potential terrorism against tourists, which will air at 12:30 p.m.. The various facets of the current news will be addressed in several two-and-a-half-minute items and interviews with studio guests such as terrorism experts Michael Lüders and Michael Ortmann. "Stay objective, don’t stir up panic!" are Renate Friedrich’s instructions.

The work begins: Reporting teams are dispatched to gather interviews on the street, and phone lines at the Berlin office are running hot as the team gets background information about the threats. At the same time, the archives are scoured for suitable short items that can be updated.

Creating a 30-minute program in less than four hours is not an easy task, but Elke Grohs is a very experienced TV professional. She goes over to her desk in the large production area called the "Bridge" and starts making phone calls.

Juggling with Time

 The area is probably called the Bridge because it resembles the bridge or command center of a ship. Numerous screens display global news streams: copy from wire services, public service broadcasters, international news channels, and also the channel’s own program. Presenter Isabelle Körner sits alone behind glass in the big, empty digital studio, which is painted light green.

On the Bridge, the Managing Editors are in command. Today, Jochen Peutz is responsible for the business items of the news program broadcast every 30 minutes throughout the day. Business takes up about half of the program. Next to Jochen Peutz is Andrea Tönnißen, responsible for the rest of the world events, broken down into politics, entertainment and sports.

The Managing Editors "drive" their channel. "It’s like juggling with time," says Jochen Peutz, and you can hear the quiet pride in his voice. The structure of the program shifts constantly, presentations are made longer, then shorter again, new reports are finished, old, no-longer-current or less important ones must give way: "The Texas flood has been cut," shouts the Managing Editor and scrolls through the items on the running order.

The day’s events are now unfolding at full tilt: The paternity test judgment is in; in Freital the GSG-9 anti-terrorism unit has stormed the homes of an alleged Nazi cell; Pegida (an anti-Islam, farright political movement) organizer Lutz Bachmann is on trial in Dresden, where reporter Benjamin Geese stands holding a microphone; he will later head to Freital to report on the events there.

That’s not always a problem-free job. Especially in connection with Pegida and the like, German journalists do encounter strong resistance. The "lying press" accusation is making the rounds: journalists supposedly exploit their freedom to manipulate the news to serve the government. In Germany, the amount of hostility, threats and insults against journalists has increased by leaps and bounds: Reporters without Borders counted at least 39 violent attacks in 2015. Violence mostly occurs at right-wing demonstrations – or during left-wing counter-demonstrations.

Increasingly Hostile

"Sometimes we journalists get thumped, too," says reporter Carsten Lueb, who is popping in to see his wife, Head of News Renate Friedrich, at the station in the early afternoon. "I’m over 6 foot 3, with a fighting weight of 220 pounds," he adds. "No one’s in a hurry to attack me."

But the reporter experiences other, less massive obstacles to freedom of reporting every day, for instance when he can’t even get to the place he wants to report from: "Germans have a mania for putting up barriers." This is not as widespread in any other Western democracy, he says: "When something happens, I want to go there and see what’s going on. I tell the police at the red and white barrier tape that I am the free German press!" Usually, professional persistence helps, he says. And you can tell by looking at him that Carsten Lueb is very capable of being persistent.

Later, the editorial team receives more news related to the topic via the DPA (German Press Agency) news ticker: Broadcaster ARD’s foreign correspondent Volker Schwenck was denied entry into Turkey. The situation is unclear, but for Sonja Schwetje it is a reminder of her concerns about foreign correspondent Nadja Kriewald: "Every time Nadja flies to Istanbul, I have a bad feeling."

Nadja returned from Turkey today and is in the process of putting together an item for the "Foreign Report" – captioning, voiceovers, editing. She has produced a longer piece on the situation of journalists in Turkey – and the situation is depressingly bad: "Ninety percent of the media today are loyal to the government. Anyone who reports critically risks a long prison sentence. In comparison, Germany is a paradise."

Nadja Kriewald regularly faces obstacles when working in Turkey: "The security services stop us, and policemen hold their hands in front of the camera. If I just stoically keep going, they eventually leave me alone." She says that every time she enters the country, she expects trouble. "The cameraman and I check in separately. He has a list of phone numbers to notify our editors and my family in case I get detained. But what I’m threatened with – deportation, a few days in prison – is nothing compared to what Turkish colleagues have to fear." The reporter has to return to the editing room. That evening she has to catch a plane to Berlin: "My child doesn’t just want to see me only on TV, after all."

Germany Ranked #16

The next morning at 7:00 a.m., one of the first news items on the wires is a story about the Reporters without Borders press freedom ranking. Paradise or not, Germany didn’t make the top ten: "Germany is ranked 16th in this year’s Press Freedom Index (2015: 12th), which puts it in the mid-range of the EU countries," the news release says. In places one to five are Finland, the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark and New Zealand. Germany’s downgrading is owed, among other things, to the numerous attacks on journalists at Pegida demonstrations. Reporters without Borders also say that journalists and their sources in Germany are increasingly being "targeted by the judiciary and intelligence services."

"You don’t have to perform heroic deeds to fight for press freedom in Germany, thank heaven! But that’s why we must never let up," says Sonja Schwetje, adding that the struggle for press freedom continues to be part of the everyday journalistic routine in 2016: "When experienced press officers take young interns for fools. When the authorities knowingly or unknowingly disregard their duty to provide information. When editorial staff are kept waiting for hours because the contact knows exactly when their deadline is. When interviewers are fobbed off with empty phrases even after a stubborn grilling. When reporters become targets of aggression during demonstrations."

Dealing with this professionally requires "a lot of backbone and backing," says Sonja Schwetje, and she’s relying fully on the next generation in this: "In job interviews the most exciting moments are when aspiring trainees realize that they can make a difference even when they’re just starting out in the profession. They don’t have to put their lives at risk, but they should be persistent, skeptical and courageous. Freedom inseparably entails the responsibility to make use of it."

Read more about press freedom and other corporate responsibility topics in the magazine "24/7 Responsibility"  .