European media face new scrutiny of reporting on immigration and crime

Sexual assaults in Cologne, Germany, have put pressure on media to report more aggressively, but some worry they may tip too far.

Johan Nilsson/TT/REUTERS
A police officer keeps guard as migrants arrive at Hyllie station outside Malmö, Sweden, in November 2015.

The headlines would not have been so blunt just a few months ago:

"Every fifth prison inmate in Saxony is a foreigner," the German newspaper Dresdner Morgen announced. "If there was an opinion corridor [a range of acceptable public opinions], it has now been thoroughly demolished," noted a columnist in the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter.

The mass sexual harassment and pickpocketing that took place on New Year's Eve in Cologne, Germany, has changed the tone of reporting on immigrant-related issues. As news of the attacks spread days later, so too did awareness that both police and media had been reluctant to connect the crimes with the "North African" and "foreign-looking" men described as the perpetrators, out of fear of fanning xenophobic flames.

Soon, other instances emerged – in Sweden, Germany, and elsewhere – of covered-up criminality alleged to have involved refugees and other immigrants from outside Europe. And the media's willfully blind eye resulted in exactly the opposite of what they were hoping for: a more immigrant-hostile debate, and distrust in the police and media.

Now, the public – and media – in the two countries that host the largest numbers of refugees in Europe are struggling with a difficult balancing act: How do you report and respond to crimes among the new arrivals without providing fuel for the anti-immigrant, far-right movement that wants to keep them all out? 

"Sometimes we, Swedish news media, have been too cautious in daring to publish suspected criminals' nationality," says Lars Joel Eriksson, editor-in-chief of Skånska Dagbladet, the local newspaper in Malmö, the main gateway to Sweden for refugees. "Now the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction."

The need to report

Following the Cologne incidents, it emerged that dozens of girls had been groped or worse at last year’s "We are STHLM" festival in Stockholm, many by Afghans, but that police had covered up the incidents for fear of appearing racist. As bad, says Sebastian, a student in Malmö, is that such incidents happened on several occasions without the public learning about it. (Because the debate is so heated, Sebastian asked that his last name not be used.)

“OK, there are fights and pickpockets at festivals,” he says. “But the job of the media is to report about it. Otherwise, what’s the point of news media?”

The criticism has yielded results – for good or ill. In Sweden, news media have begun reporting on crimes by immigrants with surprising intensity. And with Germany’s famous carnivals coming up, the country’s leading tabloid, Bild, recently made grim predictions: “Migrant masses attacking women! A horror vision. That’s why [the police] is launching its biggest operation ever for the carnival in Frankfurt.”

The high-brow weekly Die Zeit asked last month, “Who is the Arab man?”  It went on to explain that “those who are in favor of refugees must also face the problems refugees bring. Therefore we also have to talk about Arab sexism.”

"There seems to have been some self-examination among Swedish journalists, and there has been more reporting about problems connected to the refugee crisis," says Ivar Alpi, an editorial writer at Svenska Dagbladet, a leading national newspaper in Sweden. "Even though most newspapers are good at deflecting the blame, some of the criticism has gotten through."

Going too far?

While some say that the shift from no coverage to ubiquitous reporting is a positive – “The plug has been pulled on the PC [politically correct] censorship after the events in Cologne,” a user recently wrote on Flashback, a forum popular among Swedes on the far right, others worry it has spun out of control.

Hannah, a student who also requested her surname not be used, worries that people may be going to far. “Of course it’s not a good thing that media don’t report on certain crimes," she says. "But now that it’s emerging that immigrants may have committed certain crimes, there’s enormous interest in some parts of society. That frightens me. It’s as if the events are being used as a bat in what seems like a completely different debate.”

The coverage of immigrants’ sexual harassment of women has almost turned into a proxy for the debate on immigration that liberal countries such as Sweden and Germany haven’t had.

Tommy Möller, a professor of political science at Stockholm University, says that “recent events have made things easier for people who oppose immigration. The [far-right] Sweden Democrats don’t need to say a thing. They’ll barely need to run an election campaign next time.”

Like the Sweden Democrats, Germany’s far-right AfD party is reaping the benefits of the alleged concealment. A recent poll by the Allensbach Institute shows the party doubling its support since September last year, to 7 percent.


The fallout has led to introspection among members of the media, as they try to find a balance between useful and incendiary disclosure of criminals' ethnicity and nationality.

“The intention [of not disclosing the Cologne perpetrators’ immigrant identity] may be good: not to feed xenophobia," wrote journalist and former politician Susanne Gaschke in a commentary for German newspaper Welt am Sonntag. "But the strategy of solicitous concealment is not very promising. 60 percent of our citizens now consider the number of refugees too high.”

“Of course it would not be right to announce following every crime if it was committed by a refugee or migrant,” says Hans-Christian Ströbele, one of the grand old men of German politics. Though he is a vocal supporter of immigration, he argues that for authorities and the media to remain credible, they should disclose perpetrators’ ethnic background. “We mustn’t make a taboo of suspects' background. That just leads to allegations of political correctness.”

Mr. Eriksson of Skånska Dagbladet argues that "we need to be as close to the truth as possible, and that cases of not disclosing somebody's ethnicity should be the exception. But we have to be careful not to contribute to rumors."

Frank Thewes, a journalist with the national German news magazine Focus, says it's "a fine line" between acceptable and unacceptable mention of ethnicity.

"What we've seen is that properly used political correctness is a protection against false generalizations, but exaggerated political correctness creates taboos," he says. "If police find that a particular crime is committed by perpetrators from the North African region, then I think we should report it that way, because that's an important piece of information. But stating, 'North Africans are habitual robbers' or 'North Africans are dangerous' would be wrong and racist."

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