Case PEGIDA: Media Attention for Racists

Published: 16 February 2015

Country/Region: Germany, Europe

By Adil Yilmaz

PEGIDA_ProtestsPEGIDA (The Europeans against the Islamisation of the West) movement from Dresden has been present in the media for several months now. PEGIDA members are accused of racism and islamophobia, although they portray themselves as ‘average citizens’ concerned over the country’s future due to the alleged ‘islamisation’ of Europe and the ‘flood of asylum seekers’.

The movement managed to mobilize up to 25,000 people and was praised by far-right organisations. It has also inspired the anti-PEGIDA demonstrations in many German cities attended by many officials including Chancellor Angela Merkel. Media, however, still need to answer whether and how to report on political movements spreading xenophobic and racist messages and what kind of media attention PEGIDA deserves.

The PEGIDA supporters claim they do not feel represented by established political parties and feel especially misunderstood by German media, which they call ‘Lügenpresse’. That exact term was used by the National Socialists in the 1930s to describe a corrupt, state-controlled media that spread lies and manipulate ‘ordinary’ German citizens.

PEGIDA leaders refused to talk to many media outlets at the beginning, making it difficult for journalists and editors to cover their protests. However, German media managed to conduct interviews and interact with members of the movement.  In Panorama’s interviews, protesters made xenophobic, islamophobic, and racist remarks while stressing that all they wanted was to protect their ‘German culture’ and finally be taken seriously by politicians.

After analysing the mainstream media reports and numerous political debates on how to engage with the protesters and their concerns, it becomes apparent that PEGIDA reached its goal. They are taken very seriously, as German media and politics find themselves in heated debates on how to deal with the movement, splitting politicians and the media into two opposing groups. There are those who advocate a ‘reasonable’ dialogue with representatives of the movement, arguing that it is media’s responsibility to present a variety of different perspectives and give the protesters a chance to present their point of view accurately and that it is politicians’ responsibility to listen to the concerns of German citizens. On the other hand, there are those who reject engaging with PEGIDA due to hate speech at the protests and strong association with racist groups.

However, German mainstream media decided to report on PEGIDA extensively and the most popular German political talk shows invited PEGIDA leader Kathrin Oertel to discuss the movement’s political goals (Oertel and a number of other board members have already resigned from their positions).

In Günther Jauch’s show, Oertel was granted an unusually long speaking time, in which she tried to portray herself as an ‘ordinary German woman’, rejecting accusations of being racist. She repeatedly stressed that she was one of the many concerned citizens who participate in the peaceful protests. Presenter Günther Jauch missed the opportunity to challenge PEGIDA’s ex-leader   on discriminatory rhetoric and hate speech used by many of the movement’s supporters.

By repeating that PEGIDA is a group of ‘concerned citizens’ many German media outlets downplayed the protesters’ racist and islamophobic views and disregarded their violent acts of speech.

There are similar patterns in Anne Will’s talk show. Hate speech is reproduced and the PEGIDA movement is viewed as a good opportunity to talk once again about polarising issues such as asylum seekers, the integration of Muslims, and a possible burka prohibition in Germany. What better way to justify the PEGIDA demonstrations and absolve the protestors from discriminatory behaviour than shifting the discussion to a debate on how Muslims need to be integrated into German society and how a great number of asylum seekers come to Germany to exploit the welfare system?

Panorama, who conducted the interviews that were used in numerous shows, covered the Pegida movement in their own show, also downplaying the views expressed by the protestors in their attempt to remain impartial. The host of the show ends the report by saying: ‘Are they racists? Everyone has to decide that for themselves’.

This remark suggests that distinguishing between what is racist and what is not is a subjective, individual decision which is a very dangerous discourse. The portrayal of racism as subjective suggests that everybody can make the decision on whether something is racist or not, which is a common misconception about the very nature of racism as well as any other form of discrimination. Knowledge is always situated in a social reality, so individuals from specific social positions develop sets of skills enabling them to have a more nuanced understanding of certain unequal power dynamics than others due to their positionality. In other words, those who experience discrimination are more familiar with all the different forms and facets of the inequality they are subjected to than those who are not affected by the same form of discrimination, as their judgement is often clouded by privilege.

By claiming that everybody can decide whether something is racist or not, the host takes away agency from People of Colour. As it is assumed that white people can recognise racism in the same way People of Colour do, white people not seeing racism in a particular social act can lead to the misconception that it is not there and consequently accuse People of Colour of being too sensitive. This practice perpetually conceals racism and disregards the experience and expertise of People of Colour.

Prominent German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung is critical of the way mainstream media covered the PEGIDA movement stressing that media offered them much publicity and gave them a stage to perform racism. The author of the article further explores why certain groups receive much media attention criticising the fact that politicians and the media overlook racism in order to ‘understand the concerns of PEGIDA members’.

Media need to ask whether giving space to hate speech and racism can really be considered responsible media coverage, especially in light of the significant increase of violence against asylum seekers in Germany since the beginning of the movement.