Germany: A Shocking Degree of Self-Censorship

by Judith Bergman

There appears to be a significant gap between what Germans say in public and what they think… Fifty-seven percent of Germans say that it is getting on their nerves that they are “increasingly being told what to say and how to behave”.

  • “It makes a big difference… whether citizens feel that they are increasingly being watched and evaluated… Many citizens miss being respected in the sense that they want their concerns and positions to be taken seriously, [and] that important developments are openly discussed…” – From a survey on self-censorship in Germany, conducted by Institut für Demoskopie Allensbach.
  • This retreat [from respect for free speech], so far, culminated in 2018 with Germany’s censorship law, which requires social media platforms to delete or block any alleged online “criminal offenses”, such as defamation or incitement, within 24 hours of receipt of a user complaint. If the platforms fail to do so, the German government can fine them up to 50 million euros. People in Germany have been prosecuted for criticizing the government’s migration policies…
  • Dániel Tóth-Nagy, a candidate for the Liberal Democrats in the UK, was suspended from the party for comments he made, such as: “There is no such thing as Islamophobia,” and, in response to a tweet, “What about FGM? Honor Killings? Forced marriage? What do you think about the protest of women in Iran, Saudi-Arabia and other Islamic countries against the compulsory hijab? What about Sharia in Britain? LGBT rights and education denied by Muslims in Birmingham?”

A new survey on self-censorship in Germany has shown that Germans censor their own speech to an astounding degree. Asked whether it is “possible to express oneself freely in public” a mere 18% answered yes. By contrast, 59% of Germans said that in their circle of friends and acquaintances they express themselves freely.

“Nearly two-thirds of citizens are convinced that ‘today one has to be very careful on which topics one expresses oneself’, because there are many unwritten laws about what opinions are acceptable and admissible” according to the survey, conducted by Institut für Demoskopie Allensbach for the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ).

“The refugee issue is one of the most sensitive topics for the vast majority of respondents, followed by statements of opinion on Muslims and Islam,” it stated. By contrast, “The situation is different when it comes to topics such as climate protection, equal rights, unemployment or child rearing, about which one can express oneself frankly, according to the overwhelming majority”. As an example, 71% of Germans say, according to the survey, that one can only comment on the refugee issue “with caution”.

Among the topics considered taboo, a significant development has occurred over roughly the past two decades. In 1996, only 16% of Germans felt that patriotism was a sensitive issue. Today that figure has risen to 41%.

“Patriotism, cosmopolitanism and support for Europe”, (meaning support for the EU) did not use to be mutually exclusive, according to the survey. Today, however, “The population is no longer so sure that the elites, with their strong support for European integration and in a globalized global economy, are still holding the nation in high regard… citizens increasingly fear being considered right-wing when they emerge as patriots. Meanwhile, a third of the population says that politicians should be wary of proclaiming national pride if they do not want to expose themselves to harsh attacks”.

There is a very large discrepancy between what Germans consider taboo in the public sphere, as opposed to in private conversations with friends and acquaintances. For example, 62% of Germans are convinced that a politician stating that Islam has too much influence in Germany will expose himself to harsh criticism, but only 22% believe that expressing such a sentiment in private conversations would cause offense. Similarly, the sentiment that ‘too much is being done for refugees in Germany’ is viewed as a risky statement to air in public, but only 31% would consider it a problem to say that in private. There appears, in other words, to be a significant gap between what Germans say in public and what they think.

“Remarkably many [Germans] have the impression that social control has been reinforced when it comes to statements of opinion in the public sphere and that individual statements and behavior are increasingly under observation,” the survey notes. “Every second citizen is convinced that today much more attention is paid to how one behaves in public and what one says. 41 percent say that political correctness is exaggerated, and 35 percent even conclude that free expression is only possible in private circles”.

That the German public believes political correctness to have become exaggerated is exemplified by the survey’s finding that two-thirds of Germans disagree that special, politically correct terms for migrants, such as “people with a migration background” should be used in public discourse rather than more everyday terms, such as “foreigner”. Fifty-seven percent of Germans say that it is getting on their nerves that they are “increasingly being told what to say and how to behave”. Germans from the formerly Communist GDR complain more about this than the average German, as they have “fresh historical memories of regulation and constriction” according to the survey, which ends on the following note:

“It makes a big difference whether a society generally accepts and submits to meaningful norms, or whether citizens feel that they are increasingly being watched and evaluated… Many citizens miss being respected in the sense that they want their concerns and positions to be taken seriously, [and] that important developments are openly discussed…”

The results that the survey conveys are hardly a huge surprise to observers of the retreat of respect for freedom of speech in Germany in recent years. This retreat, so far, culminated in 2018 with Germany’s censorship law, which requires social media platforms to delete or block any alleged online “criminal offenses”, such as defamation or incitement, within 24 hours of receipt of a user complaint. If the platforms fail to do so, the German government can fine them up to 50 million euros.

People in Germany have been prosecuted for criticizing the government’s migration policies: In 2016, a married couple, Peter and Melanie M., were prosecuted in a criminal trial for creating a Facebook group that criticized the government’s migration policy. According to news reports, the page stated that, “The war and economic refugees are flooding our country. They bring terror, fear, sorrow. They rape our women and put our children at risk. Make this end!”

At the trial, Peter M. defended his remarks online and said, “One cannot even express a critical opinion of refugees without getting labelled as a Nazi. I wanted to create a discussion forum where you can speak your mind about refugees…” In his verdict, the judge said, “The description of the group is a series of generalizations with a clear right-wing background.” Peter M. was sentenced to a nine-month suspended prison sentence and his wife to a fine of €1,200. The judge added, “I hope you understand the seriousness of the situation. If you sit in front of me again, you will end up in jail.”

In September 2015, Die Welt reported that people who air “xenophobic” views on social media, risk losing the right to see their own children. There need not even be a criminal offense for a court to consider the child’s welfare to be endangered and to restrict the parents’ right to see his or her child or to order “an educator” present during a meeting between parent and child, who can “intervene as required.” It is also possible to forbid certain actions, expressions or meetings in the presence of the child. As a last resort, the court can take the child out of the parent’s care entirely.

In August 2017, the Munich district court gave Michael Stürzenberger, a journalist, a six-month suspended jail sentence for posting on his Facebook page a historical photo of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, shaking the hand of a senior Nazi official in Berlin in 1941. The prosecution accused Stürzenberger of “inciting hatred towards Islam” and “denigrating Islam” by publishing the photograph. The court found Stürzenberger guilty of “disseminating the propaganda of anti-constitutional organizations”. After he appealed the sentence, an appeals court in Munich, in December 2017, acquitted Stürzenberger of all charges. The appeals court ruled that his comments were protected by the freedom of expression. Nevertheless, the impression left on German society is that even historical facts have now become a taboo.

So, while Germans’ fears of speaking their minds in public are not motivated by any legitimate fears of being put in Soviet or Chinese types of gulags, there are extremely real fears and extremely real concerns, such as those exemplified by the prosecutions above.

While the survey was limited to Germany, it is probably reasonable to assume that if such a survey were to be conducted in like-minded Western European countries, such as the UK for instance, the results would not be much different. The space for free speech has been shrinking there, too. In a recent case, a candidate for the Liberal Democrats, Dániel Tóth-Nagy, was suspendedfrom the party for comments he made, such as: “There is no such thing as Islamophobia” and responding to a tweet about Islamophobia with, “What about FGM? Honor Killings? Forced marriage? What do you think about the protest of women in Iran, Saudi-Arabia and other Islamic countries against the compulsory hijab? What about Sharia in Britain? LGBT rights and education denied by Muslims in Birmingham?”

Those questions are all legitimate questions for a politician to ask, yet this is what the party’s local spokesman had to say:

“These posts are completely outside of our party’s values and beliefs, and will not be tolerated. Had we been aware of this before, there’s no way he would have been selected as a candidate. We have immediately suspended him and we apologise to anyone that has been upset or offended by these comments”.

More recently, posters advertising British singer Morrissey’s new album, California Son, were removed from trains and stations in Liverpool and the surrounding areas after a traveler contacted the rail company to ask if it agreed with Morrissey’s opinions, and questioned whether the posters were “appropriate”. The question came after Morrissey appeared on the Tonight Show in the US, while wearing a badge supporting For Britain, the right-wing party led by Anne Marie Waters.

“It’s very Third Reich, isn’t it? And it proves how only the feelings of the most narrow-minded can be considered within the British Arts,” Morrissey said about the removal of the posters. “We are not free to debate, and this in itself is the ultimate rejection of diversity… I am afraid we are living through the Age of Stupid, and we must pray that it passes soon.”

Given how advanced the rout of free speech in Europe has become, there is little chance of it passing any time soon. If the German survey is anything to go by, Europeans will not even need to be further censored by governments: they have become expertly conditioned to do the job themselves.

Judith Bergman, a columnist, lawyer and political analyst, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Gatestone Institute.

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