Personal Public (Death) Threat I: How the German Far Right tries to intimidate and silence journalists

The annual report of “Reporters Without Borders” shows that global press freedom is in decline, even though less journalists were killed in 2019. While Mexico and Syria remain the most deadly countries for journalists (ten murdered journalists in each country) in 2019, China, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are the countries with the highest number of detained journalists. Europe continues to be the continent that best guarantees press freedom, but even then the situation has deteriorated, especially for journalists who investigate “hot topics” like corruption, (gang) crime, protest movements and political extremism. In Serbia, Slovakia, Montenegro and Malta, journalist investigations of corruption and crime in politics and society have caused massive, sometimes deadly responses. Austria, Hungary and Czech Republic stand out regarding their decline of press freedom as a result of far-right governments in office, rooted in “the return of nationalism and the rise of the [far] right” in Europe, which dates back to 2013 in Hungary and 2016 in Austria and the Czech Republic.

In Germany, the major turning point was the “refugee crisis” that triggered the founding of PEGIDA and the rise of its political party arm, the AfD. Public discourse, especially the wording and framing, have changed drastically under the influence of this far right movement and party. For instance, the derogatory term “Lügenpresse” (literally lying press, or fake news media) became part of the standard invective far right vocabulary. Furthermore, the number of physical attacks against journalists rose enormously (39 to 43 in 2015; 16 to 19 in 2016; 8 to 16 in 2017; 22 to 26 in 2018), highly corelating with the number of far right rallies. In the aftermath of far right rallies that crossed red lines and thereby aroused public attention, politicians, security officials and media experts regularly state that the violence and poisoned social climate has reached a “new quality”, a “new dimension” or a “new level”. Statements like these – unwittingly or intentionally –suggest that these attacks are a more recent phenomenon and have not reached a critical point (yet). While professional associations and trade unions for journalists are well aware of this problem, politicians, security officials and media experts often misjudge that journalists who cover the far right are regularly threatened and attacked.

The case of the journalist with the pen name Anton Maegerle is a good example that the threat has loomed for decades. He started his career in 1983 by monitoring then recently founded far right party “Die Republikaner” (“The Republicans”) and subsequently extended his investigative focus to the far right movement, subcultural scenes and right-wing conservative circles. In 1996, his real name became public and since then he is living under a permanent death threat of the far right, but he did not stop his investigations. His most impactful exposure was the uncovering of bank accounts of far right activists used for political work. The bank terminated the accounts, thereby massively disrupting their cash flow for basic work and campaigns. But Maegerle and his family paid the price for his investigations: His house had to be equipped with constructional safety arrangements and he (sometimes) needs bodyguards to leave the house for giving a talk or – depending on the current threat – just leaving the house for daily routines.

Recently, three other journalists who investigate the far right – from old Nazis to subcultural scenes to right-wing terrorism – have been publicly threatened by a rally directed against them and their work, organised by the National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD). It was the firstright-wing terrorismdirected against journalists in Germany. Julian Feldmann, David Janzen and André Aden were personally depicted on banners carried by the participants of the rally. Julian Feldmann’s photo could be found on the mobilization call as well as on the protest banners, combined with the slogan “Feldmann in die Schranken weisen” (Put Feldmann back in his place!). Before the NPD had organized this rally in November 2019, Feldmann and Janzen were already receiving death threats: Feldmann was publicly addressed at the White Power Music festival “Schild & Schwert” in Ostritz (Saxony) in June 2019 by Thorsten Heise, vice chairman of the NPD, allegedly spiritus rector of German Combat 18, and extreme right movement entrepreneur: “Der Revolver ist schon geladen, Herr Feldmann” (“The colt is already loaded, Mister Feldmann”). Janzen was also publicly threatened with death in a video by a member of “Adrenalin Braunschweig” (Adrenaline Brunswick) , a neo-Nazi groupuscule: “Heute Walter, morgen Janzen” (Today Walter, tomorrow Janzen). In this case the name Walter is a reference to Walter Lübcke, a CDU-politician who was assassinated by extreme right activists with close ties to Combat 18 in June 2019. Only a few days later, Janzen found another death threat on his front door: “Wir töten dich! Janzen” (We will kill you! Janzen).

These are only a few examples among many other journalists like Andrea Röpke, Andreas Speit or Georg Restle, who have all received death threats and of whom some already had to endure physical attacks, with no consequences for the assailants or very low degrees of penalty. As if that would not be frightening and frustrating enough, the police often plays an unfortunate or even (constitutionally) doubtful role in these situations, as for example in the “Hutbürger” case from Dresden in August 2018. In this incident, the police prevented two journalists, working for a German public sector broadcaster, from doing their work by having an unreasonably long validity check of their press cards during a PEGIDA rally. This was done by request of a PEGIDA participant who later turned out to be an employee of the Saxon State Office of Criminal Investigation. On top of that it became publicly known in 2019 that the police did not inform journalists (and other potential victims) about the fact that their names were found on “death lists” compiled by extreme right activists of the “Nordkreuz” (“Northern Cross”)- network in 2015, which was confiscated in 2017.

This all amounts to a free press that is massively under threat, and therefore journalists, their trade unions, as well as some politicians, demand more protection for this profession, advanced training for police officers in dealing with the press and more appreciation for their service to democracy.

Mr Maximilian Kreter is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR and a Doctoral candidate at Hannah Arendt Institute Totalitarianism Studies, TU Dresden. See his profile here.

© Maximilian Kreter.  Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).