Written by Tobias Raab* and originally published by the ECPMF

On the 2nd of December 2015, the German Press Council had to deal with complaints about the coverage of the refugee crisis in German media. Nineteen of these complaints were addressed against several newspapers who had shown pictures of a drowned boy in their print and online articles, whose dead body had been found at a beach in Bodrum (Turkey).

The Council found all of the complaints to be unfounded as the pictures had not been inadequately sensational or degrading and showed a document of contemporary history. The 4-year-old boy drowned fleeing over the Mediterranean Sea together with his family. The picture caused strong emotions and initiated a worldwide discussion on refugee policies. The Council stated that the picture symbolized the suffering and danger, which refugees took on their long and tough way to Europe. Showing the result of war, the risky business with smuggling gangs and the trip to Europe justified a public interest in the Council’s opinion. As the boy's face had not directly been recognizable, neither the articles nor the photos violated his personality rights.

The Council also found 20 complaints about a photo which had been published in several tabloid newspapers of 71 dead refugees who had been found in a truck, to be unfounded. The 71 people suffocated while being transported by a smuggling gang. The Council decided that the articles were reporting on a major crime. That is why a public interest could not be negated. In the opinion of the Council, the newspapers were only documenting the cruel reality without degrading the victims – who were unrecognizable in the picture. Even though the Council admitted that the picture was terrible, it made clear that reality can be shown, unless the reporting is inadequately sensational by degrading the victims and making them that way victims once more. This photo showed the danger and risks for refugees trying to flee to Europe as well.

In a different case, the Press Council reprimanded a serious violation of article 11 of the Press Codex, which concerns sensationalised coverage. The German tabloid newspaper BILD had published a video on its online portal. The video showed people who were swimming in the ocean and who were trying to hold on to wreckage while they were being shot one by one. The video had obviously been filmed by the murderers themselves, as they were posing in front of the camera after the shooting. The shooting scenes that showed victims being hit by bullets had been pixelated. The shooting itself however was not adequately being commented on. That is why the Press Council stated that the coverage in this case primarily aimed at sensationalism and did not (only) serve public informational interest.

*Tobias Raab is freelancer at Institute of European Media Law (EMR), Saarbrücken/Brussels.

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The press releases of the German Press Council can be found here .

Tags: Germany Media freedom Ethics of journalism

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Publication Date: 05/01/2016