The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Can anti-media rhetoric spark violence? These German researchers reached a startling conclusion.

Demonstrators from the anti-Islamic Pegida movement gather in Dresden, Germany, in November 2015. (Jens Meyer/AP)

President Trump's public rants at journalists as the “enemy of the people” and “fake news” may seem to many like uncharted territory in a Western democracy.

But when Trump escalated his rhetoric against the media over the weekend — focusing on the New York Times and The Washington Post — researchers with the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom in Germany (ECPMF) saw striking parallels to the sort of criticism they observed before a surge in violence against German reporters in 2015 and 2016.

“By calling journalists 'enemy of the people,' President Donald Trump declares war on them and legitimizes any attack on journalists,” the ECPMF wrote in a statement to The Post on Monday. “The [findings of the research] were crystal clear: When constantly slandered as 'lying press,' journalists are in danger.”

President Trump is not the first leader to label journalists as “enemies of the people” and creators of “fake news.” (Video: Melissa Macaya/The Washington Post)

The research center's prior research echoes the warning that Times Publisher A.G. Sulzberger said he gave in a July 20 meeting at the White House with the president, telling Trump that his remarks could trigger violence.

“I warned that this inflammatory language is contributing to a rise in threats against journalists and will lead to violence,” Sulzberger said in a statement after Trump made the off-the-record meeting public on Sunday.

If you asked journalists in Germany — a country that regularly outranks the United States on press freedom indexes — whether such fears are justified, they would most likely recall a spate of incidents three years ago. In early 2015, the anti-immigration movement Pegida attracted tens of thousands of supporters in the eastern city of Dresden and elsewhere to its weekly protest marches. Most of those who joined were hardly neo-Nazis but rather eastern Germans who felt their voices were not heard by mainstream politicians.

But their self-declared leaders called the media the “lügenpresse,” a derogatory word meaning “lying press” that was once used by the Nazis. For months, tensions simmered as the chorus of voices shouting “lying press” grew louder. Then those tensions suddenly escalated.

At a rally in January 2015 in Leipzig, one of Pegida's leaders condoned the use of violence against journalists and politicians. At the same rally, a female reporter was struck in the face and injured. It's not clear whether the timing was a coincidence or related, but many more violent assaults followed. Germany's leading broadcasters at some point refused to send their reporters to cover anti-immigration protests without private security personnel.

“At some point, it was impossible for us to walk around at the protests with a notebook. People would immediately target us,” Tobias Wolf, an investigative reporter with local newspaper Sächsische Zeitung, said in an interview last year.

“The backing of the AfD, as a large political party which stood behind verbal attacks on the media, legitimized violence against journalists,” said another local reporter who did not want to be named because of fears for her safety. The reporter was referring to the far-right and anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party, whose leaders have verbally attacked journalists and given out “Pinocchio” ratings for media representatives they deem to be especially untrustworthy.

The anecdotal observations were later backed up by a large-scale study by the ECPMF that was published last May. It concluded that efforts by Germany's far right to portray journalists as liars served as the key justification for subsequent attacks against journalists. “While the media was usually only defamed and rejected as part of the 'lügenpresse' before 2014, that term and its association with a more general resentment against the media became acceptable among the wider public,” the authors wrote.

Then-candidate Trump, they argued, may have indirectly contributed to those attacks by his frequent references to “fake news.”

Despite increased security measures, reporters were seriously assaulted at least 20 times in the German state of Saxony — where Dresden and Leipzig are located — in 2015. At the time, researchers saw a number of similarities including reporters being targeted in both Trump's and Pegida's attacks against the media and bans on certain publications.

Far-right protests now draw far fewer people in Germany than they did at the height of Europe's refugee crisis in 2015, and attacks on journalists have declined as a result. But some fear that the impact of such rhetoric may be far more pronounced if directed by a leading party or politician, in Germany or elsewhere.

“Here in eastern Germany, some low-profile organizers steered the hatred against journalists. But in the U.S., it's the president who is behind the bashing. That's much more frightening,” Jana Merkel, a freelance TV journalist who covered the German far-right, said last year.

A previous version of this post was published in February 2017. It was updated July 30, 2018. 

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