Flexing his muscle on the broadcaster's board, Roland Koch, the CDU Premier of the state of Hesse, blocked ZDF director-general Markus Schächter's push to extend Brender's contract for another five years. Brender is now expected to end his 10-year tenure when his contract runs out in March.
In separate statements, centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) chairman Sigmar Gabriel and environmentalist Greens leader Cem Özdemir both labelled the ousting a “black day for broadcasting freedom in Germany."
Brender himself said the situation showed that the governance of public broadcasting in Germany was flawed.
“The outcome shows that the power-political system in public broadcasting cannot fix itself,” he said.
Only the constitution could safeguard the independence of a public broadcaster, he added. Brender also stressed that the wide show of support he received – which included an open letter championing press freedom by 35 prominent constitutional law professors – was a heartening signal for ZDF's independent journalists.
Seven of the 14 board members who voted backed Brender. Nine votes were needed to extend his contract.
Expressing his disappointment, Schächter said: “I can't understand why, even with my co-ordinated effort with Nikolaus Brender, the deadlocked situation couldn't be resolved by majority support for a compromise, namely a shortened contract until January 2012.
Koch, who is deputy chairman of the 16-member board and had been speaking out against Brender's reappointment for months, defended his decision, saying such a replacement of ZDF's editor-in-chief was normal.
It was not Brender's journalistic direction that had been judged but rather his management skills, he said.
Berlin Mayor and SPD deputy chairman Klaus Wowereit quickly implicated Chancellor Angela Merkel in the decision.
“Under the management of Roland Koch and Edmund Stoiber (the former leader of the CDU's Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union), but not without the agreement of the Chancellor's office, a distinguished, journalistically independent editor-in-chief has been shown the door,” he said. “This is a wrong decision that I deplore.”
Brender raised heckles during the recent election campaign in Germany by cancelling a political programme on which Chancellor Angela Merkel and her challenger Frank-Walter Steinmeier had declined to appear.