The BigBrotherAward in the “Sport” category goes to the Local Organising Committee of the 2009 World Championships in Athletics in Berlin.
This award is about the protection of press freedom – which is of no less than fundamental importance in a liberal democracy.
Let us recall the German constitution, which says in Article 5, Paragraph 1: “Freedom of the press and freedom of reporting by means of broadcasts and films shall be guaranteed. There shall be no censorship.”
It would be incompatible with this principle of press freedom if journalists were forced to undergo a security vetting process before being allowed to report on events. But that is precisely what our award winner has required from press representatives.
The journalists had to accept that the organising committee wanted to acquire intimate knowledge about those wanting to report on their event: in order to be accredited, journalists had to authorise Berlin police to collect information about them across the German Federal States’ criminal police authorities, and to pass on their personal details to the domestic and foreign intelligence agencies (the Verfassungsschutz and the Bundesnachrichtendienst) as well. If any records were found, the Organising Committee would be informed – not about the contents, but about the fact that a finding had been made.
This simply amounted to treating sports journalists as if they were all potential criminals, or at least enemies of the constitution who were liable to threaten interior and exterior interests of the German state. It seems absurd and evocative of states in which the press must be regarded as “directed” and tame, rather than free.
Such security clearances are anything but new. During the Football World Championships that took place in Germany in 2006, security authorities had been giving information about press representatives to the organisers as well – before their requests for accreditations would be decided upon. And at the NATO summit in Strasbourg this year, journalists had to undergo security screenings, too. Those with records in a database, e.g. at the Federal Criminal Police Office (Bundeskriminalamt, BKA), could expect to be barred from reporting from the media centre. This fate befell a photo reporter for the German daily “Neues Deutschland”, who was labelled a “leftist offender” by the BKA – without having ever been finally convicted.
We therefore recognise that our winner is not alone at all with its desire to stop any critical reporting in its tracks. But considering that this summer’s events were sports championships, this desire for control seems particularly irrational. There have neither been revolutionary developments emanating from such events in the past, nor have press representatives earned a reputation of committing assaults on athletes, functionaries or anyone else involved.
But the signal sent to the journalists is loud and clear: we, the organisers, will know who wants to report about us. And in cases of doubt, it is our decision who is allowed to do their job and who isn’t. And that is exactly where the principle of press freedom is violated, because it protects not just the production and distribution of news and comment, but its acquisition as well – “without hindrance from generally accessible sources”, as the constitution expressly says.
The attitude shown here and the impression it creates are a blatant contradiction of the fundamental value of press freedom. This cloak named “security” is barely convincing, and through it, the rights of journalists are ever more restricted. Journalists should only need to show their press card in order to report on public events. It is high time to reiterate this rule in strongest terms and demand that it is recognised.
Congratulations for a severe violation of a basic value of a liberal democratic state: to the Berlin Organising Committee of the World Championships in Athletics 2009.