The annual German Press Ball usually attracts quite a bit of attention for its red carpet appearances and high-profile guest list, which included President Joachim Gauck this year.
But the ball last Friday has since sparked outrage over an “almanac” printed for the gala’s guests. Inside the publication was a piece meant to be satirical, advertising swim lessons for refugees on the Mediterranean Sea.
For example, the description for “preschool refugee swimming”, for children aged three years and up, states that young ones will learn “the right survival swimming to clutch onto ship wreckage remains, dive under high waves, jump from the edge of rubber dinghies and breath control during the night and in the cold”.
A map of the Mediterranean then showed where to find the swimming lessons.
Leading German journalists denounced the brochure, with the Süddeutsche Zeitung’s Robert Roßmann on Tuesday calling it “inhuman” on Twitter.
Thousands of refugees and other immigrants often fleeing war-torn countries have died crossing the Mediterranean in recent years, with the United Nations reporting in October that 2016 has been the “deadliest year yet”. More than 3,700 people have lost their lives trying to cross into Europe as of last month, while the total for 2015 was 3,771.
Politicians as well as journalists have been tweeting against the brochure since Tuesday.
“So much cynicism and misanthropy is shocking,” wrote Green party chair Simone Peter.
“Everything may be permitted in satire, but not this filth here,” wrote Stern magazine editor Philipp Jessen.
The Press Ball is run by the Federal Press Conference (BPK), which is made up of more than 900 parliamentary correspondents.
The board of the BPK apologized in a statement on Wednesday, saying they regretted that “feelings and values were hurt”.
“It was the intention of the authors to draw attention, through an exaggerated form, to the catastrophe of thousands of people dying on the Mediterranean, and to stir a discussion on people smuggling,” the BPK statement said.
“In a final editorial vote, publishers and editorial staff decided with a majority that this piece tested the limits of satire, but did not overstep them.”
The first member of the editorial group behind the almanac to make a statement was journalist Jens Peter Paul. He explained on Tuesday night that it had been in reaction to the vast number of deaths on the Mediterranean, as well as to the EU-Turkey refugee deal in which Turkey takes back those who pass from its shore into Europe without permission. In return, the EU has promised billions in aid to help Syrians in Turkey, and to take in recognized Syrian refugees living in Turkey.
“In fact, the piece is very bitter and bad. It is offensive,” Paul explained. “It was the subject of many intense discussions. I myself do not like it. And it is certainly not funny, but – surprise – it was not supposed to be.”
Journalist and podcast host Tilo Jung also defended the satire piece.
“Everyone come back down and stop wanting to set off a shitstorm,” Jung wrote on Twitter. “Satire is a matter of taste.”