The big question at the moment is: why does it go on without proper public discourse with the Lockdown, the mask duty, the contact bans, why are critics defamed and the fear is held up (“it’s not over until the vaccine is there.")? One explanation is the lack of"internal freedom of the press”. As a result, the press and politics have fallen into a trap from which they can no longer escape. What this “internal freedom of the press” is and why its absence is so fatal, especially in the current Situation.
The freedom of the press, which is guaranteed by Article 5 of the Basic Law, is initially a right of defence against the state. “Censorship does not take place,” Article 5 says, and so it is, the German state does not censor. At least not directly – but there are efforts to outsource censorship to external service providers. In addition, there are threatening developments in Germany that restrict press freedom. Reporters Without Borders currently lists, for example, “hostilities and threats against journalists”, “creeping decline in the diversity of daily newspapers” or “lawyer strategies against unwelcome research”. Another important criterion of freedom of the press is now much worse: the so-called internal freedom of the press. How important it is, and how much it is missing, became abundantly clear during the corona crisis.
In order to understand what internal freedom of the press is, why it is so important and why its absence ultimately negatively affects or even harms society as a whole, one must keep in mind the important role that a functioning media landscape plays in a democracy. “Everything we know we know from the media,” Niklas Luhmann once wrote. Who of us knows Angela Merkel personally, who was in the refugee camps in Greece and who was in a hospital in northern Italy? Our information comes almost completely from the mass media, the decisions of the federal and state governments we learn about television, radio, newspapers and internet media. Conversely, politicians from newspapers and television also learn what the ordinary policeman, the emergency doctor, the bus driver or the elderly caregiver think about their politics. The morning press review is still one of the most important documents on the desk of government officials.
Mass media are transmission belts, without which a Democratic state would not be organized at all. But even more: if groups such as environmentalists or nurses have a concern, then this is conveyed through the mass media. Climate protection! Asylum policy! Driving bans! These topics have occupied the press for months, and a public discourse has emerged. This discourse is important in order to be able to recognize and balance conflicting interests in a society. Journalists should therefore learn from the very beginning of their training that their work has a central function in a democratic society.
And they should also learn about the function of the press as a so-called fourth force. If parliaments and courts fail to uncover certain facts, then the press should actually come into play. Watergate or the CDU fundraising affair are examples of such investigative journalism. Unfortunately, there are many more “construction sites” that are not dealt with by the established media, which makes publications such as the reflection pages all the more necessary. But even if the established media often do not really fill their opinion-forming, discourse and control function, a far - reaching functioning of the press landscape is nevertheless vital for a democracy.
What about the opinion - forming and discourse function in the Corona period, what about the role of the media as a fourth force? Discourse means letting the representatives of the different positions have their say, presenting pros and cons. Until the end of April, I had not been able to discern any discourse in the major media, the “quality newspapers”, the regional newspapers, the public and private television and radio channels and the news magazines. Sure, Times in rare daily newspaper articles, such as the interview with Juli Zeh on 9. April in the süddeutsche Zeitung, or individual Lanz-broadcasts on ZDF, for example, on 29. March. On the whole, however, critical voices were not depicted in the media for about six weeks.
Critical questions, however, were very well posed – in open letters, in alternative media and in private internet videos. Starting in mid-March. Anyone who reads or watches them today, the Videos of Dr. Wodarg, Prof. Bhakdi or Dr. Schiffmann, and also those of many other people who raised legal or social questions, asks himself involuntarily: were these not legitimate questions? Weren’t they worth discussing? Or even a Search?
These questions were not discussed in the “leading” media after my observation in March and April. As a Journalist, I ask myself Why colleagues did not follow up on the hints, questions and criticisms. Have you not heard about it? Hard to imagine, because most of them were only two clicks away. After a short initial search, did you recognize the criticism and questions as unjustified? Certainly not, because research would have yielded interesting results even then.
As a Journalist, anyone who hears questions and criticism listens. Asking questions, investigating inconsistencies, that is the elixir of the journalist’s life. Or have the approximately 120,000 journalists in Germany suddenly forgotten their training or lost their craft? Certainly not. But: most journalists in Germany are firmly integrated into the journalistic Mainstream. This means, on the one hand, that you like to orientate yourself according to the prevailing opinion of the profession. Being a recognised part of one’s own profession is more important than a critical opinion that is not suitable for the majority. On the other hand, it is firmly anchored in the professional Habitus of journalists to remain within a given thought corridor with their own questions and research. Because everything else would ultimately be system destabilizing. This is not a slander, but proven by Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman: the journalistic Mainstream is not tasked with finding out and publishing the truth, but primarily with preserving the system.
There are, after all, the critical journalists who uphold the discourse and control function of the press. They had, we may assume, very similar questions and would have gladly pursued the questions. Only: was there anything to read or see about it? No. And this is where the internal freedom of the press comes into play. What this is can be quickly explained using the example of Stuttgart 21. The two Stuttgart newspapers have praised and defended this project almost without exception for many years. This was called Leaf line. One could now scold the Stuttgart newspaper journalists if one did not know that there was a lot of controversy in the editorial offices. But: these controversies were conducted only marginally, only among colleagues. They played no role in the editorial conferences and controversial points of view therefore did not appear in the paper. Diagnosis: Lack of internal freedom of the press. Where would we go if opinions and points of view that do not correspond to the paper line (that is, ultimately, the editor’s opinion) nevertheless appeared in the newspaper, the TV programme or the news magazine?
The harsh verdict on the discourse and control function during the Corona period must be: by the end of April, the established media have completely failed. On 22 April, an Austrian FPÖ politician was the first prominent figure to publicly criticise his country’s government policy. With a comment in the Bild newspaper a few days later, the media continued. And suddenly, here and there, critical voices also got a place in the big media. All not so bad, you could say, with a few weeks delay our media system works after all. However, the criticism published here and there is only a fig leaf, there can be no talk of a genuine public discourse. In addition, the damage is greater than it seems at first.
For six weeks, the federal and state governments and all established media spread a single narrative and did not discuss, criticize or question it in any way, namely: Corona is a terrible disease that can bring our health system to collapse. All the tough measures are justified, otherwise there are unmanageable numbers of dead. In short: We do everything right.
This narrative must not be called into question, because if it were to be overturned, then the credibility of practically all politicians, practically all established media and a great many scientists would be lost. The way in which this narrative is currently defended shows how important it is to maintain it. One struggles with almost the complete Arsenal of means of manipulating opinions, which Albrecht Müller has set out in his book “Believe little, question everything, think for yourself”. Especially popular is the discrediting or. Defamation with fighting terms such as" conspiracy theorist", cross-front, coronal denier, fact check, anti-vaccination, Populist or right-wing extremist. But they also work with non-media means: for example, demonstrations are forbidden by formal law or only allowed under high conditions.
No politician and hardly any Medium is currently trying to do the only sensible thing: to pacify the camps of critics and supporters of the common narrative, to build bridges, to come back into a common discourse. It is particularly tragic that it may already be too late. Because the common narrative has already been deeply rooted in people. Anyone who starts discussing it now as a politician or Journalist would run the risk of having to question it.
Let us look again at the chain, and what it ultimately means. The lack of internal freedom of the press has meant that journalists have not followed up on the numerous questions relating to Corona and the Corona measures for about six weeks. Criticism did not appear in the major media for six weeks. On the contrary, it established the narrative that the government had done everything right. Today, this narrative can no longer be overturned, because all central actors would thereby lose their credibility. So the critical voices must be silenced by all means – there is still no internal freedom of the press. Two key players in our society are now trapped: they have to defend the official Version “we did everything right”. With the help of the press. And, if necessary, even against better knowledge, as at least one media-played paper from the BMI suggests.
Freedom of the press is not a legal-theoretical freedom. It only prevails where the press actually exercises its full function of discourse and control. Only there can there be an open democratic society. It seems that our democracy has already been damaged.