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The History of the German Press "No Ethnicity" Policy

Okinawa

(source)

Given that recent migrants have been committing a goodly number of crimes in Germany since 2015, the question facing reporters and editors is whether to tell their readers when crimes are committed by foreigners.

The German Press Code, a non-binding voluntary code of conduct put forward by the German Press Council, contains the famous Guideline 12.1, which specifies that news reports should not mention a that a criminal suspect is a member of an ethnic or religious minority unless there is an "objective reason" to do so linked to the specific circumstances of the crime. The rule further warns journalists that violating the guideline can "stoke prejudices against minorities".

This provision has come under a lot of scrutiny lately, with critics claiming it is a form of politically-correct censorship which patronizes readers. Readers can be trusted not to generalize, these critics say, and deserve a full picture of serious crimes. A few smaller German newspapers, including the Rhein Zeitung (g) and the Sächsische Zeitung (g), declared that they would no longer observe the guideline in their reporting. Most national press outlets have stuck by it, although they stress that they reserve the right to decide for themselves whether a suspect's ethnicity or nationality is relevant.

Yesterday I found out the interesting origins of this provision, thanks to this Deutschlandfunk (g) article. This long article (g) at the German Protestant Church's website gives an even more detailed history of the guideline's origins.

It turns out the provision goes back to a 1971 suggestion by Federation of German-American Clubs. They were dismayed that whenever black American soldiers were arrested for crimes in Germany, they were identified on the basis of their race. The Press Council incorporated the first "anti-discrimination" provision into the Press Code in 1973, and it's been updated several times since.

I found this enlightening and a bit surprising. I don't have all that much to add, except that the original context giving rise to Article 12.1 is hardly relevant anymore. There's a difference between merely identifying the skin color of a criminal suspect who is and will always remain a foreigner and who will certainly leave your country in a few years, and identifying the ethnic background of a person who is either living in your country for the foreseeable future, has its citizenship, or is actively claiming a a legal right to live there indefinitely (by getting asylum).

Tourists and soldiers on 2-year rotations are one thing, but Germans have every right to accurate information about whether people who have been invited to permanently resettle into their country or are seeking the right to do so are adapting well and contributing. And the amount of crime foreigners are responsible for is a legitimate indicator.

Yet even if this distinction doesn't convince you, gentle reader, I still think papers should ignore this guideline. Everyone already knows that certain kinds of crime are much more frequent in majority-black American ghettos and in heavily-immigrant areas of German cities. When flash-mobs pour into the streets of German cities (g) to attack policemen stopping cars or parking cops giving tickets, there is not a German alive who thinks the young men beating the cops have names like Ulf, Karlheinz, Alexander, and Torsten. Merely reporting what everyone is already going to suspect -- or (rarely) surprising them by showing the suspicion was false -- is hardly a breach of ethics.

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