On Feb. 6, Germany's most-read newspaper reported that dozens of Arab men, presumed to be refugees, had rampaged through the city of Frankfurt on New Year's Eve. The men were said to have sexually assaulted women as they went through the streets; the newspaper dubbed them the Fressgass “sex mob,” referring to an upmarket shopping street in the city.
Bild's report sparked widespread concern in Germany. The nation has taken in millions of migrants over the past few years, and there had been reports of a similar incidents in Cologne and other cities the previous New Year's Eve.
But police investigating the crime now say that the allegations included in the article are “without foundation.”
According to the Frankfurter Rundschau, the witnesses who spoke to reporters may be investigated themselves. Bild has now deleted the story from its website. The paper's online editor in chief on Tuesday said that the company apologized “for our own work.”
— Julian Reichelt (@jreichelt) February 14, 2017
There have been plenty of false stories about refugees and migrants in Germany over the past few years, in large part a reflection of divisive political views on the issue within the country and the increasingly fragmented world of online media. They include the story of the “Allahu akbar”-chanting mob that set Germany’s oldest church alight (quickly proved false), for example, or the refugee who took a selfie with German Chancellor Angela Merkel who was accused of terrorism links (again false).
But most of these stories have been driven by social media or spread by ideological websites like Breitbart.
Bild, on the other hand, is a major newspaper founded in 1952 with a print circulation in the millions — the highest of any European newspaper. While it traditionally takes a center-right position ideologically, its views on refugees have fluctuated — in 2015, Bloomberg News wrote that the newspaper had surprised its critics by learning “to love refugees.”
The Local reports that Bild had largely based its report on the accounts of Jan Mai, a well-known restaurateur in Frankfurt, and a 27-year-old woman named Irina.
Mai had told the newspaper that 50 Arab men had come into his restaurant, where they caused chaos, stealing coats and assaulting women. The female witness had told the newspaper that the men had grabbed her between her legs and on her breast. “Their hands were everywhere,” Irina told Bild.
Frankfurt police were taken aback by the article — they had not heard of any large-scale assaults taking place in the area on New Year's Eve — but a number of news outlets published aggregated versions of the story, spreading it further.
When local newspapers tried to report more on the story, local business owners said they had never seen any kind of “sex mob” or mass sexual assault on New Year's Eve. “It was absolutely peaceful,” one staff member at a Fressgass bar not far from Mai's establishment told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
On Tuesday, police released a damning statement on the incident that suggested the reports published in Bild were without foundation. “The interrogations of the witnesses, guests, and staff have created considerable doubts about the portrayal of events,” the statement read, adding that “a person allegedly affected by the actions was not in the city at all when the crime occurred.”
The Frankfurter Rundschau reports that since-deleted social media posts from Irina seemed to suggest she was abroad during the New Year's period. Meanwhile, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported that Mai had published a number of posts on Facebook expressing support for far-right parties and criticizing Merkel on his Facebook pages. Prosecutors are now investigating the witnesses themselves.
Reporting on alleged sexual assaults by refugees and migrants is a fraught subject in Germany. Shortly after New Year's Eve 2015, rumors of alleged sexual assaults by large groups of men began to circulate on social media but attracted little attention in the German press and from officials. It was only half a year later that the full extent of the situation became known, with a leaked police report suggesting that there were over 1,200 women assaulted by more than 2,000 men in a number of cities.