After Cologne, European press seeks to balance private and public safety

People stand in front of posters and flowers near the main train station in Cologne, western Germany, Monday, Jan. 11, 2016. A group of Pakistanis and a Syrian were attacked in Cologne amid tensions over New Year's Eve assaults in the city that have been blamed largely on foreigners, police said. (Oliver Berg/dpa via AP)

Nearly a month after the European media was scolded for failing to adequately cover sexual assaults allegedly committed by male refugees at a New Year’s Eve celebration in Cologne, Germany, the event is being seen by some as a turning point in how the press covers migration.

Local police, concerned about stoking anti-migrant sentiment, initially denied that the New Year’s Eve attacks in Cologne had occurred. A January 1 police statement noted a crowd control incident provoked by fireworks, but said it had been handled well and order restored. But on January 5, after the Cologne daily Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger broke the sexual assault story, city officials admitted the police had understated the incident, which allegedly included groping, violent robberies targeting women, and at least one rape. Cologne’s police chief was placed on leave in January.

The German press has spent the past month facing down rumors that it, too, soft pedaled the attacks. A look back at the coverage, however, shows that the local and international press actually reported the story as quickly as it could be verified.

But how fairly the Cologne attacks were, and continue to be, covered is a different question. Journalists were criticized for downplaying the migrants’ role in the attacks, but the press are still struggling with how much to reveal about the suspects, given rising anti-migrant sentiment in Germany. “There’s a debate going on over whether to name the nationality of someone accused of a crime,” says Sarah Brasack, deputy city editor of Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger, which hasn’t arrived at a consistent policy yet. “I wouldn’t say that now we’re always going to name the nationalities. We don’t if it is someone who is German. But there’s a lively debate about it now.”

The concern is over creating guilt by association in Germany, where nativist political groups have been accused of spreading rumors of false sexual assault claims blamed on migrant men. Protests by German nativist organization Pegida following the Cologne events included signs denouncing “rapefugees.” Hostility toward North Africans in Germany has been covered internationally.

Brasack says her paper learned of the attacks shortly after they occurred via social media. A reporter monitoring Facebook and Twitter overnight “found a few women debating what had gone on” in a plaza next to Cologne’s central train station, where people had gathered to celebrate the holiday, Brasack says. “Within a day, she had already talked to some victims.” The following day, the paper’s police reporter got a tip from a source, who confirmed that the police were investigating sexual assaults alleged to have been perpetrated by migrant men from the Middle East and South Asia, despite official denials.

National and international press were slower on the uptake, but it was New Year’s Day, and both the Cologne police communications office and most media outlets in Germany were operating on skeleton crews. The police denials—in reality, it appears that police were already working the case within hours—nevertheless made the story difficult to confirm for media not already in Cologne.

Despite the stonewalling by police, the story spread widely enough following the holiday weekend to become international news within days. Global coverage closely followed angry protests that soon erupted in Cologne, decrying the slow police response to the local women’s allegations.

Crimes, particularly sexual crimes, can implicate all refugees, Brasack says, “which is obviously bullshit, you cannot draw such a connection.” The problem for Brasack and other German journalists is that people accused of crimes are routinely named in the paper in other contexts, so not naming refugees in an attempt to protect them from politically motivated smearing would be a notable departure. “It’s both a debate about migration and also a debate about reporting crime,” Brasack says. “It has changed how we speak about migration.”

The Cologne story isn’t the only one of its kind right now in Europe. Shortly after the German story broke, police in Sweden admitted they had not shared information on at least 100 coordinated sexual assaults allegedly committed by groups of young recently-arrived Afghan refugees at a Stockholm music festival. Police had thrown 200 teenage boys and young men out of the show, but made no arrests. Another group of sexual assault cases involving asylum seekers in Sweden occurred over New Year’s weekend in the city of Malmo. None of the Swedish incidents was made public by police or local media until early January, a delay of weeks and in many cases months. It appears some local media outlets were aware of the incidents, but failed to investigate. 

The alleged hushup was driven both by uncertainty over how to report its ethnic dimension and a lack of basic facts on the ground, says James Savage, managing editor of The Local, a Stockholm-based chain of news websites in nine European countries. The Local publishes in English, and its coverage of the incidents has been cited widely in international coverage.

Because police were fearful of inflaming anti-Muslim bigotry, they made no arrests in the Stockholm incidents, Savage says, leaving reporters no paper trail, no suspects to report on, and no names of victims. “They [police] didn’t go out with the information, or in the case of Stockholm, [when] they were asked a direct question, they didn’t confirm,” says Savage, who oversees all The Local’s sites, including its Swedish edition. With no alleged victims coming forward and nothing official to go on, Swedish media saw the story’s trail go cold. “Eventually, they gave up.”

Unlike in Germany, Savage’s reporters at TheLocal.se found no digital trail from the incidents, he says—no photos, videos, Facebook posts, or tweets from witnesses—despite their having occurred amid large gatherings in public places. A Swedish police source told reporters that officers had not made arrests or taken victims’ names during the Malmo attacks because they “didn’t want to help the Swedish Democrats,” a right-wing political party with a strong anti-immigrant platform, Savage says.

“Media in general, and perhaps European media in particular, are very particular about identifying people’s ethnicity,” says Savage. “No one wants to be the first one to say ethnicity is a factor. You do risk looking like you are sort of pushing a far right agenda.”

Response to the incidents elsewhere in Europe has been less restrained. Writing in The Daily Beast, columnist Maajid Nawaz, a London author who spent time in Egypt’s prison system for previous involvement with extremist groups, likened the Cologne incidents to sexual assaults in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the 2011 Arab Spring protests. “Recent mass migration patterns across Europe have meant that misogyny has finally come head to head with anti-racism, multiculturalism is facing off against feminism, and progressive values are wrestling with cultural tolerance,” he wrote.

After a month’s reporting, the details of the actual crimes in Germany and Sweden remain murky, with media in both countries keen to prove they can report the stories while balancing private and public safety. “We’re not in the business of keeping information, we’re in the business of imparting information,” says Savage. “What we’re saying is, be factual. Don’t imply that ethnicity is a factor unless you have very good evidence, and don’t go beyond what the facts let you say.”

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Marc Herman is a reporter based in Barcelona. He is the author of The Wizard and the Volcano, The Shores of Tripoli, and Searching for El Dorado, and a co-founder of Deca.