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German press rules on mentioning criminal's ethnicity changed

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German press rules on mentioning criminal's ethnicity changed
Protesters hold a sign which reads "Lying press." Photo: DPA
15:38 CET+01:00
The German Press Council on Wednesday eased slightly the rules about mentioning the religious or ethnic background of a criminal suspect.

The non-binding guidelines previously stated that the ethnicity or religion of a criminal or the suspect in a police investigation should only be stated when it “can be justified as being relevant to the reader’s understanding of the incident.”

But after hundreds of women reported being sexually assaulted by men of North African appearance over New Year 2015-16 in Cologne, newspapers began to call for a review of the code.

Nonetheless the new guidelines do not stray far from the wording of the original.

The new text states that “the journalist should be careful when reporting on criminality that mentioning the suspect’s ethnic or religious identity does not lead to a general discrimination based on one individual’s actions.”

“In general ethnicity should not be mentioned unless there is a plausible public interest in doing so,” the new guideline continues.

The credibility of several national media organizations was called into question in the aftermath of the Cologne sexual assaults after they failed to report on the events in Cologne until several days later.

Newspapers themselves blamed the delay in reporting on the police, who also often follow the press code when writing reports on criminality.

Supporters of the previous guidelines maintained that they were necessary to ensure that negative stereotypes about ethnic minorities were not perpetuated. But critics said that they stopped the press from reporting important details of a crime and detracted from press credibility in the public’s eyes.

Kai Gniffke, a reporter for public broadcaster ARD, asked in March last year: “what is the use in rule-abiding journalism when no one believes us?”

In a heated public debate over the impartiality of the mainstream media when covering the refugee crisis, supporters of the far-right political party AfD have taken to calling the media the Lügenpresse (lying press).

In July the Sächsische Zeitung openly broke with the regulator, announcing that it would name the nationality of suspects in every criminal case, including when they are German.

The new code on Wednesday received mixed responses on Twitter.

The German Federation of Journalists claimed that it reaffirmed that "discriminatory reporting is a no-go."

But Christian Schruff, a presenter for public broadcaster ARD, said that the new code was playing into the hands of the far-right, arguing that "it gives credit to those with the wrong agenda."

Conservative critics of the press council have not been pacified by the new formulation, though.

On Twitter the AfD Heidelberg branch described the new guidelines as "a clear recognition of 'parental journalism' and censorship."

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