Media Analysis: Public Television Coverage of the Cologne New Year's Eve 2015/16

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The  full German language e-publication of this study can be downloaded here.

The 2015/16 New Year’s Eve night in Cologne has had far-reaching consequences. In Germany, the sexual attacks on women (in the meantime, close to 500 reports of sexual harassment and 16 cases of rape have been filed with the police) were considered by the majority of people to be proof of the fact that the country’s open-arms culture, which had commenced in summer, had either come to an end or was even viewed as being erroneous overall. On 29 January, the government announced that it had agreed on a new “asylum package”. Its declared aim was to reduce the number of refugees in Germany. Accordingly, the subsequent migration of family members was suspended for two years, and Morocco, Algeria as well as Tunisia were declared to be safe countries of origin. The protests against further eroding basic rights to asylum were few and far between. The response from the right wing was all the greater: even Donald Trump, then still just a presidential candidate, used the opportunity to appeal to his millions of Twitter followers: “Germany is going through massive attacks to its people by the migrants allowed to enter the country. New Year’s Eve was a disaster. THINK!”

What actually transpired that night only gradually came to the notice of the general public in spite of the extensive media coverage. Even today, a committee of enquiry in the state parliament of North Rhine-Westphalia is still investigating the police’s conduct in particular. The police had initially stated that the New Year’s Eve night in question had largely passed peacefully. Yet, as early as 1 January, over 200 reports had been filed with the police. It was only days later that talk of sexual attacks could be heard. The command centre at Cologne’s criminal investigation department is additionally said to have received a call on 1 January requesting them to scrap an internal report in which the word “rape” was mentioned. The committee of enquiry has been unable to gain any clarity on this matter thus far.

Also the fact that the lack of coordination among the security agencies and of a security concept for that New Year’s Eve night led to the uncontrolled situation at Cologne’s central railway station was only brought to light in an investigative report by Zeitmagazin on 28 June 2016 titled “What really happened?” (“Was geschah wirklich?”).

Instead, the first few weeks of the media’s coverage focused, above all, on the media debate on the origin of the perpetrators. Sexualized violence has been stylized as a problem that – so it is argued – is being dragged into German society from outside. The cover pictures of German magazine Focus and the weekly magazine of the Süddeutsche Zeitung daily newspaper showed white women being grabbed by black hands. This imagery harked back to the Third Reich where people were similarly warned of “racial defilement”, and it furthermore draws on the repertoire of colonial rulers.

As early as 8 January, The German Women Lawyers Association and the feminist Action Alliance #ausnahmslos piped up with a press release and appeal “#ausnahmslos. Gegen sexualisierte Gewalt und Rassismus. Immer. Überall“. They called for full and complete clarification of what transpired and criticized the racializing concentration on the origin of the perpetrators. In the heated debate on “Women and Islam”, the “refugee debate” and the “lying press” run by the leading media, their interjections fell on nearly-deaf ears. #ausnahmslos later also criticized the fact “that the envisaged bill to amend the criminal law relating to sexual offences also equates to a tightening of the Residence Act and calls for the establishment of an offence to be applied collectively to groups” (http://ausnahmslos.org). All told, two people have been sentenced for sexual harassment.

Through the current study by Ricarda Drüeke, we are returning to the time immediately following the events, i.e. to a time in which – by necessity – there was uncertainty as to what had really happened. In such a situation, the media has a particular obligation to exercise diligence. The focus on the news coverage by public broadcasting corporations ARD and ZDF can be explained by the specific mandate for public broadcasting institutions to avoid any form of discrimination and to ensure that multiple opinions and perspectives are represented.

The  full German Language e-publication of this Study can be downloaded here.

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