Germany: Leading journalists attempt to censor TV program

By Peter Schwarz
30 May 2014

Since February, Germany’s second public television channel, the ZDF, has been broadcasting the political satire show “Die Anstalt” (the German word is used for a TV station as well as for a mental asylum) at regular intervals. Featuring 46-year-old Max Uthoff and 36-year-old Claus von Wagner, a younger generation of comedians has taken over from Urban Priol and Frank-Markus Barwasser, who headed the predecessor “News from the Anstalt”.

The first three editions of “Die Anstalt” were a refreshing antidote to the political coverage provided by the ZDF and other German media outlets. Using satire, the programs took up current issues and brought the public’s attention to themes which normally can only be learned about by carefully researching the Internet or reading the World Socialist Web Site.

Central themes of the programs were the revival of German militarism and the events in Ukraine. German President Gauck, Foreign Minister Steinmeier and Defense Minister von der Leyen, who all called for “an end to military restraint,” were subjected to the same merciless treatment as the lying reports in the German media about the events in Kiev.

The second edition of the program, on March 11, began with a depiction of the “Revolution” in Kiev’s central Maidan square. It was not presented as a “freedom struggle”, but rather as a revolt by forces which were mainly right-wing and on the payroll of vested interests. The fascist Right Sector was ruthlessly exposed, as was the corrupt oligarch Julia Timoshenko, played by comedian Jochen Busse.

The third edition on April 29 then addressed at length the propaganda pumped out by the German media aimed at provoking war with Russia.

One scene featured a chart with the names of five leading German journalists: Stefan Kornelius of the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Josef Joffe and Jochen Bittner from Die Zeit, and Günther Nonnenmacher and Klaus-Dieter Frankenberger of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

In addition, the chart showed the names of 12 transatlantic think tanks—including the Aspen Institute, the Trilateral Commission, the German Council on Foreign Relations and the German Academy for Security Policy—where “military heads, business leaders and politicians discuss foreign policy strategies in a discreet atmosphere,” as Wagner explained.

Lines on the chart traced the connections between the five journalists and the government-related think tanks. The result was a dense network. “Then all of these newspapers function as something like the local editions of the NATO press office,” Uthoff concluded.

The scene was based on material contained in the dissertation “The power over opinion. The influence of elites on key media and alpha journalists” by the media expert Uwe Krüger, and on a strategy paper by the Institute for Science and Policy (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, SWP) on German foreign policy, which has also been commented on by the WSWS. Both papers had appeared in 2013 but were only known to a small circle. “Die Anstalt” has now made them available to a much broader audience.

The wide publicity sparked fierce protests against the media outlets that had been exposed. Uwe Krüger told the online magazine Telepolis: “I suppose that the pressure following a television show with millions of viewers is considerable. There has certainly been a shit storm of online articles, and apparently there were cancellations of subscriptions.”

The affected journalists reacted. They pressured the ZDF to ban similar revelations in the future. They responded to the exposure of their one-sided reporting and their incestuous relationship with the ruling elite by calling for censorship.

Josef Joffe wrote a letter of complaint to the editor of the ZDF, Peter Frey. Joffe evidently anticipated a favorable reaction because Frey is one of the “alpha journalists” exposed by Uwe Krüger. Together with Stefan Kornelius and Klaus-Dieter Frankenberger, Frey sits “on the Advisory Board of the Federal Academy for Security Policy, a think tank affiliated to the Federal Ministry of Defense,” Krüger writes.

Joffe justified his letter of complaint by arguing that the TV program had led “to many protest letters and cancellations of subscriptions”. He wrote that the treatment of the media in “Die Anstalt”—which is, of course, a satirical show!—was “not good journalism” and Krüger’s book was “not good science.” Joffe does not deny his close links to the institutions mentioned, but he does deny that they constitute “lobbies”. It is quite right and natural that many transatlantic organizations demanded “more armament”, he said.

In an interview with the online magazine Telepolis Krüger rejected Joffe’s complaint. He refuted Joffe’s assertion that the media and think tanks represented different points of view. His detailed analysis of the content revealed a broad degree of agreement by different newspapers regarding the following “major questions”: “that security should be defined in a broad sense, that German interests are to defended all over the world, that Germany should become more involved militarily and should maintain its partnership with the US, and that the German government should intensify its efforts to convince the German population on all of these issues.”

Stefan Kornelius defended his close ties to government-related think tanks in the NDR magazine Zapp. “This is my daily bread. I find it strange that I have to justify myself for this”, he said. The message of “Die Anstalt” affected all the newspapers, from Die Zeit to the FAZ and the taz. It posed the question: “Do we retain any legitimacy at all?” He did not want to destroy the forums where he worked as a journalist, Kornelius said.

Joffe’s letter of complaint to the editor of ZDF was evidently intended to put the authors of “Die Anstalt” under pressure—in other words to censor the program. To make this absolutely clear, Joffe also sent a “cease and desist” demand to the ZDF, as did Jochen Bittner.

If the ZDF agrees to such terms it commits itself not to repeat certain claims and to pay a heavy penalty in the event of a violation. Should it not agree to the terms the TV station could face legal action with resultant high legal costs and penalties.

A spokeswoman for the station told Telepolis that the ZDF rejected the cease and desist letter. No information was given to the public about other reactions inside the ZDF. The fourth episode of “Die Anstalt”, however, which was aired on May 27, does not bode well. It was disappointing, with little remaining of its former political freshness and aggressiveness. Uthoff and von Wagner concentrated their fire on the impending football World Cup, the FIFA and its corrupt boss Sepp Blatter—an easy target that does not tread on the toes of the German ruling establishment.

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