Amid bitterness over debt crisis, can German and Greek media play nice?

Newspapers and other outlets in both countries have been aggravating diplomatic relations with accusations of Greek laziness and German heartlessness. Now some are trying to take a step back.

Yorgos Karahalis/AP
A man reads a newspaper next to a kiosk in Athens on Saturday.

The Greek delay in repaying 300 million euros to the International Monetary Fund until the end of June promises more weeks of often vitriolic negotiations between Athens and Brussels.

But it also guarantees a parallel extension of the ongoing media battle between Germany and Greece, as each side's newspapers and TV stations slam the other with venom, whether it is German tabloids depicting Greeks as lazy or Greek newspapers invoking Nazi crimes.

Now journalists and think tanks are fighting to regain understanding that’s been lost: by calling for clear and accurate information to get beyond simplistic headlines and divisive political rhetoric.

“Let's not be too dramatic, we are not at war,” says Raphael Geiger, a German journalist responsible for Greece coverage for Germany’s Stern magazine. “But what remains from years of economic crisis is for sure a crisis of trust and partnership in Europe. The European people, the Germans and Greeks especially, are less close now.”

'Bashing a country'

After Greeks elected Alexis Tsipras’s far-left Syriza party into office in January, they put the country back at odds with the European Union and its powerhouse, Germany, which wants the country to stick to its reform path, no matter the cost.

As Mr. Tsipras dug in his heels in February, for example refusing to cut pensions and suggesting war reparations as a way to keep Greece flush, Germany's biggest tabloid, BILD, hit back with a headline, “NO – No More Billions for the Greedy Greeks.” It was typical of headlines that often employ emotional language, such as Greece “pumping for money” instead of “seeking money.”

But this time, David Kleimann, a research associate at the European Center for International Political Economy in Brussels, shot back in a tweet: “Dear Greeks, don’t take these people seriously. We don’t! Yours sincerely, a German.” That was picked up by news outlets and retweeted with gusto.

"The German media could play a very constructive role in outlining solutions for Europe's current political and economic crisis. Instead, much of the mainstream media are covering political events in a purely reactive fashion," he says.

Greeks journalists have been even more indignant. Ferry Batzoglou, a Greek raised in Germany, stopped sending in articles to Der Spiegel, he says, over its portrayal of Greece as the economic crisis mounted in 2012. “I have no problem criticizing a government,” he says. “But bashing a country, that is a problem for me.”

Still, the Greek press has been equally provocative. Mr. Geiger, who lives in Istanbul, says while the German press is often condescending and sensational, the Greek press is blatantly partisan. “The tone is sometimes shocking, especially toward Germany, those Nazi comparisons for instance,” he says.

And Mr. Batzoglou says that anti-German sentiment has increasingly found its way into books and intellectual circles, which makes it harder to dismiss. "It could be a little bit more dangerous for the relationship of the two countries," he says. 

Building bridges

Pawel Tokarski, a senior researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, says his organization invited a group of 10 Greek journalists to Berlin to meet today with German researchers to explain "why Germany is insisting so much on reforms.” He says the German government should continue to invite journalists, teachers, social workers, and researchers to the country to explain German thinking.

In the meantime, daily interactions help bridge divides, like the German tourists who will visit the Greek islands this summer and hear a different perspective, or the Greeks who move to Germany for job opportunities. One Greek, who only gives his first name of Michael, says he shows up for work 40 minutes early each day in a factory 50 miles from Berlin, just to disprove rumors that Greeks are “lazy” and to better integrate into Germany's punctual culture. He’s been promoted for it.

The German-Greek Cultural Association hopes to have a wider impact. Its new film festival – Hellas Filmbox Berlin, which airs in January – is intended to offer a “new vision” that goes beyond the headlines and political maneuvering.

As its site reads, “To see this land through the eyes of its cinematographers should give the German audience a clear, direct and honest experience – one that is almost impossible to gain through the German media these days. Greek films have far more to say about the crisis happening in Greece than daily German newspapers.”

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