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Hounded over Merkel selfie, Syrian refugee sues Facebook

A Syrian refugee whose selfie with German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been repeatedly manipulated to link him to violent jihad, took Facebook to court Monday for spreading defamatory fake news.

Hounded over Merkel selfie, Syrian refugee sues Facebook
Anas Modamani in court in Würzburg. Photo: DPA

Anas Modamani, 19, says the US social media giant has failed to take down doctored images and posts that have falsely linked him to, among other things, deadly Islamist attacks in Brussels and Berlin last year.

He has asked a court in the southern city of Würzburg for an injunction against Facebook Ireland Limited, the group's European subsidiary, requiring it to take down posts linking him to terrorism or criminal offences.

That includes a recent posting which wrongfully claims Modamani was among a group of Berlin juvenile delinquents who tried to set fire to a homeless man in a case that sparked public outrage last Christmas.

Modamani is being represented by German lawyer Chan-jo Jun, who has already launched separate criminal complaints against Facebook for inciting hatred.

Jun argues that Facebook acts as “a content provider, a journalistic medium, which through its guidelines, algorithms and journalist-bots influences which content people see and how”.

“Facebook must finally follow German law… to remove illegal content,” he said ahead of Monday's hearing, claiming that the company's own community standards did not prevent defamatory and insulting statements.

Online fury

Modamani arrived in Germany in 2015, along with tens of thousands of other Syrians.

When Merkel visited his Berlin refugee shelter in September that year, he took two selfie images with her in jubilant scenes also captured by a news agency photographer.

Since then, those images have been manipulated and used in different contexts countless times, as right-wing fury has flared online against Merkel's liberal stance on refugees.

Trolls have cut and pasted Modamani's picture into wanted posters and on fake news reports, typically alleging that the refugee made famous by the Merkel selfie had turned out to be a terrorist.

“The main motivation of Anas Modamani is that it stops,” Jun has told AFP, adding that his client, who is now taking German language courses and working in a fast food restaurant, “dreams of studying in Germany”.

Publicising the case has brought much attention to Modamani and already helped clear his name, Jun said.

A Facebook spokesman told AFP: “We are sorry to hear about Mr. Modamani's concerns with the way some people have used his image.

“We are committed to meeting our obligations under German law in relation to content which is shared by people on our platform.

“We have already quickly disabled access to content that has been accurately reported to us by Mr. Modamani's legal representatives, so we do not believe that legal action here is necessary or that it is the most effective way to resolve the situation.”

Fake news

Facebook has faced heavy criticism in Germany for fake news and hate speech spread by its users, leading the company to promise corrective steps on both fronts.

The company and other web giants pledged in December 2015 to examine and remove within 24 hours any hateful comments that were spreading online in Germany, in particular over the mass influx of 890,000 migrants that year.

Jun last year launched legal action against Facebook in Munich, accusing its executives of condoning incitement of hate and violence, and of failing to remove illegal content despite being notified.

Justice Minister Heiko Maas, who has been negotiating with social network chiefs, has also warned that Facebook and others could be punished if they do not comply with German law.

Last October, a senior leader of Merkel's centre-right party, Volker Kauder, warned social networks that Germany could introduce fines for illegal content that is not removed within a week, with a suggested penalty of €50,000 euros per post.

Facebook announced in mid-January that it would introduce new measures to take down “unambiguously wrong reports” being shared on the social media platform.

The company said it would offer a simpler reporting process for users to flag suspected fake news, display warnings next to statements identified as false by independent fact-checking organisations, and cut off advertising revenue to fake news sites.

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IMMIGRATION

What Germany’s plans for a points-based system mean for foreigners

To tackle its ever-widening skills gap, Germany wants to encourage talent from aboard to move to the country by introducing a points-based immigration system. Here's what foreigners need to know about the changes.

What Germany's plans for a points-based system mean for foreigners

What’s a points-based system?

A points-based system is an immigration model where foreigners have to score above a certain threshold of points in order to obtain a residence or work permit in a country. The exact scoring system is set by the government, but can include factors like language skills, family connections to the country, specific qualifications or work-related skills, or the amount of money in your bank account. 

Points-based systems can also be known as “merit-based systems”, because there tends to be a pretty big emphasis on what you can offer a country in terms of education or skills. 

The model was first introduced in Canada way back in 1967 as the country tried to move past a system based on race and nationality to one that favoured language fluency, youth and educational or vocational background. A similar step was taken in Australia just a few years later in 1972 and, since Brexit, the UK has also introduced its own points-based model. 

How does this relate to Germany?

When the new ‘traffic-light’ coalition of the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) took office last December, the parties pledged to reform Germany’s immigration system and bring a fresh cohort of workers into the country.

“In addition to the existing immigration law, we will establish a second pillar with the introduction of an opportunity card based on a points system to enable workers to gain controlled access to the German labour market in order to find a job,” the coalition agreement read.

This would apply to third-country nationals who don’t otherwise have the right to live and work in the country. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: What Germany’s new government means for citizenship and naturalisation

German language course poster

A sign advertising German courses. Language skills can count towards points in a points-based system. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Bernd Wüstneck

FDP migration specialist Dr. Ann-Veruschka Jurisch, who is working on these reforms, says the policy is driven by Germany’s desperate need for workers. 

“The Liberal Party (FDP) is convinced that we need more labour migration,” she told The Local. “We do have a lot of options for coming into Germany as a labour migrant – but it’s a bit complicated – and if you want to come to Germany to search for a job and you don’t come from an EU country, it’s much more difficult.”

That’s why the coalition is aiming to offer a second route for people who don’t have job lined up in Germany, but who otherwise have the skills or talent to find one. 

What will this look like?

The plans for the points-based system are still at an early stage, so the exact criteria haven’t been worked out yet.

What’s clear at this stage, however, is that the points-based option would run parallel to the current model, which generally permits people with a concrete job offer in a skilled profession to come and work in the country. 

“It’s about (people having) a good opportunity to come to Germany when they have either a job offer in sight or a direct job offer,” Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) said in response to parliamentary question in January. 

“Next to that, we want to achieve a further possibility for talent – for qualified men and women whose skills we need in Germany, who still don’t have a work contract but, if given access, could use that opportunity. That’s what we’re talking about with this Canadian points-based system. It shouldn’t replace our current system, but rather improve it.”

In short, that means that people with a job lined up won’t be disadvantaged – but there will be alternative routes for those without them. It also won’t affect the EU blue card scheme

READ ALSO: ‘I finally feel at home’: How Germany’s planned changes to citizenship laws affect foreigners

Will people need formal qualifications? 

Probably not – though it will obviously depend on the sector someone works in and their level of experience in their chosen field.

“I personally am convinced that you shouldn’t place too much emphasis on formal qualifications, because it’s very complicated getting your formal qualifications recognised in Germany,” said Jurisch.

“A medical doctor, for example, is one where you can’t say, ‘Okay, you’ve got some experience so we don’t need to see your papers.’ But there are a lot of other jobs which do not have this restriction and they are not formalised but rather based on practical experience.”

Carpenter wood

A carpenter sands down a block of wood in Cologne. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Federico Gambarini

The issue of recognising qualifications is also a problem that the traffic-light coalition has set their sights on solving during their time in office.

At the moment, the process of getting qualifications officially recognised in Germany is done on a state-by-state basis, so somebody who gets their degree recognised in Brandenburg may have to redo the entire process again in Bavaria, for instance.

According to Jurisch, there have already been conversations between the Ministry for Labour and Social Affairs and the Ministry of Education on the issue, and Labour Minister Hubertus Heil (SPD) has also promised to take steps to solve it.

But, she said, it’s complicated: “I’ve started to dive into this issue, and the more I dive into it, the more complicated it becomes – so there are no silver bullets.” 

How many workers are needed – and where? 

In order to plug its labour shortages, Germany needs around 400,000 new workers every year, according to the Federal Employment Agency. In 2020, Germany’s net migration was just 200,000 and 150,000 people of working age entered retirement – which means the country is currently falling well short of its targets. 

“We have shortages everywhere,” Jurisch said. “We need 400,000 new workers every year, and these people won’t be born in Germany – or if they are, they won’t grow up for another 20 years.

“We haven’t managed to get more women into the labour market, or they work part time, so I don’t think this will make a big difference, and I don’t think we will close the gap by training people.”

In this sense, it seems that immigration is the only option for filling major staff shortages in almost every profession. 

“Whoever I talk to, be it nurses, nannies, IT workers, industrial workers, teachers, lawyers – everywhere we have a shortage,” Jurisch said.

staff shortages Germany

A sign outside a restaurant informs customers of a closure due to staff shortages. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Stefan Sauer

When will the points-based system be introduced?

Unlike with the plans to reform citizenship, which the SDP-led Interior Ministry wants to achieve by the end of the year, there’s no firm timeline in place for the points-based system.

However, the FDP is fighting for the policy to be given higher priority and would like to introduce the new visa system before the next federal election in 2025. 

“I hope it will be done in this legislative period,” said Jurisch. “I’m pushing to get it a little bit higher up on the agenda.” 

READ ALSO: INTERVIEW: ‘Changing German citizenship laws is a priority’

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