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.


'Lessons of History' Taught to Empty Classrooms

Many aspects of German life, people will tell you, have been shaped by the 'lessons' Germans have learned from things which happened 80 years ago.

'We' learned, you'll hear everywhere, that state killing is wrong, which is why 'we' adopted Art. 102 of the post-war German constitution, which bans the death penalty. And which is why 'we' lecture other countries on why they, too, should end executions.

Whenever you hear a German saying something like this, ask them: Who's 'we'? They'll be puzzled at first, never having given this question a moment's thought. But then you can Socratically lead them to the realization that 'we' refers only to the educated upper class. When the Basic Law was being debated in the late 1940s, the death penalty was still wildly popular in Germany, with approval routinely between 70 and 80 percent. And the man who proposed that abolishing the death penalty be part of the German constitution was Hans-Christoph Seebohm, a right-winger who also wanted a constitutional ban on abortion.

Which brings us to video surveillance of public places in Germany. Once again, the amorphous 'we' raises its head: 'We' suffered through two dictatorships during the 20th century in which governments spied relentlessly on their citizens, which is why 'we' don't trust or want surveillance cameras. 

Except that a recent poll shows 83% of Germans do want more surveillance cameras (g) in public places.

When History was teaching its Lessons, the people -- like German university students today -- skipped class.


Unblocked Photos, Video Surveillance, and Other Concessions to Reality

There are any number of German privacy laws that restrict the ability of German police to solve crimes. Cops are not allowed to use DNA to create profiles of criminal suspects. Major political parties continue to resist putting surveillance cameras in public places, or upgrading the ludicrously outdated ones that are already there. 

And police often wait days or months to publish photos of criminal suspects. Even when they do, the photos are often blurred out of concerns for "privacy".

Which leads to what the rest of the world sees as a ludicrous charade: a manhunt for a dangerous wanted terrorism suspect in which the public is not allowed to see the man's face.

This is the photos of Anis Amri, the Tunisian asylum-seeker suspect in the Breitscheidplatz Christmas market attack, as show on the front page of the German Bild tabloid:

Bildredc

And here is the photo of the suspect as shown on the Daily Mirror tabloid site:

Fff

As the Mirror notes, with barely-disguised incredulity:

Despite an unfolding international manhunt the first pictures of him released in Germany have his eyes deliberately covered, thought to be because of strict privacy laws there. MailOnline has uncovered unblurred images.

In case you were wondering, the website of the Daily Mirror can be accessed from anywhere inside Germany, so the unblurred photo is just a mouse-click away.

When Germans bother to ask why these photos are so often blurred, or not even released in the first place, authorities mumble something about 'privacy concerns' and 'data protection'. The restrictions have just been around forever, they're taken so much for granted that nobody seems to actually understand why they still exist. It's like asking why pretzels are folded the way they are. Who knows? We've always just done it that way.

If pressed, Green Party members (the most vociferous opponents of updating police laws) will probably say something like "Well, if you release the entire photo, the man will be marked for life. Maybe some vigilante will try to attack him." Yet there is no proof that these things happen with regularity in other countries which do release unedited photos. Of course there might be isolated cases, but by and large, people in those countries -- i.e. the rest of the world -- understand that suspects are just suspects, and that it's wrong and illegal to take the law into your own hands. And that the public interest in apprehending dangerous violent criminals also has to be taken into account, and is very high.

Allow me to make another one of my predictions: most of these outdated policies will crumble within the next few years. The moderate, cautious, kid-gloves approach to law enforcement in Germany was designed for a bygone era, in which Germany was much more homogeneous and even criminals shared a language, culture, and set of expectations with the society in which they lived.

When Dieter the local bartender robs a bank with a plastic pistol because he lost his job and can't pay his mortgage, he's probably going to turn himself in and confess ('I just drank a bottle of Schnaps and lost control.'). Everyone knows Dieter and his family, Dieter showed he understands what he did was wrong, nobody was hurt, and Dieter will not only promise to repay the money, he will actually do so. Because Dieter is German, and has roots in the community, and can anticipate regaining some place in it if he shows genuine remorse. The same even goes for Dieter beating his wife after a violent argument. Of course that crime is much more serious, and Dieter will go to prison, but the crime is still comprehensible and (conditionally) forgivable within the pattern of assumptions and practices that make up German culture. 

The sort of crime happening in Germany has changed completely. The laws will need to change as well. There will still be vigorous rear-guard resistance to these changes, but it will eventually fail. As Herbert Stein once said, if something can't go on forever, it will stop.


Video Surveillance Leads to Arrest in Rape-Murder Case

Police have finally arrested a suspect in the case of a student at the University of Freiburg who was raped, murdered, and thrown into the Dreisam river (g) on the 16th of October. News reports say that the clue came from a video surveillance camera which caught a man with an "unusual haircut and hair color" near the crime scene. Unconfirmed reports say that plainclothes cops rode the #1 streetcar looking for the haircut, and found it. More details to follow at an afternoon press conference. 

Strange haircut and color, riding a purple women's bicycle? Are you thinking what I'm thinking?

Sascha_Lobo

Relax, it's a joke. But seriously, folks, it's obviously far too early to speculate. However, that's never stopped me before. I think the unusual haircut could be the shaved-sides long-on-top popular among certain spirited young lads, such as the ones on the left side of this picture:

Silvester-koeln-107-_v-videowebl

Also, it seems a bit odd for a man to be riding a purple women's bicycle such as the one found at the crime scene. Unless, of course, he had no choice because the bicycle was donated (g).

From a policy perspective, this is another argument for video cameras. The typical Green argument against them is that even if they may help solve some crimes, they don't prevent crimes (g). This is the sort of argument they repeat like a shibboleth in front of like-minded audiences who nod in eager assent, but which withers when subjected to any scrutiny.

First and most obviously, why exactly is their role in helping solve crimes only mentioned in passing? People prefer living in societies where cops are able to solve crimes, and video surveillance is a reliable tool. The number of mistaken identity cases involving video surveillance is tiny, and vastly outweighed by the number of cases in which camera footage caught the right person. Cameras are certainly much more reliable than eyewitnesses.

Also, video cameras do prevent crime, as many studies have shown. Otherwise, insurance companies, generally not composed of idiots, would not encourage their use and advise on proper placement. The fact that we don't know exactly how much crime they prevent is the case of the impossible negative counterfactual: it's impossible to precisely measure things which do not occur. We know about how many cases of lung cancer were avoided by reductions in the smoking rate but will never know precisely how many for the same reason.

Second, video cameras prevent crime not only by deterring would-be offenders but by incapacitating the people who get caught. If the Freiburg Rapist turns out to be a serial killer, it is almost certain he will strike again. If he is caught and imprisoned for the rest of his life, he will never be able to do so. That means there will undoubtedly be several women who, unbeknownst to them, will owe their lives to this video recording and the police who found the killer with its help.

This is not an argument for cameras on every street corner, as you find in London. But it is an argument for evaluating the usefulness of cameras based not on abstract principle, but based on pragmatic, case-by-case evaluation.