24th Oct 2016


How Cologne assaults stunned authorities and media

  • Cologne, 2 January 2016. Germany is struggling to interpret the assaults on women on New Year's Eve (Photo: Nicole Hundertmark)

“I am Syrian, you must treat me kindly! Mrs Merkel has invited me.”

This quote from an internal police report about Cologne's chaotic New Year's Eve, during which more than a hundred women were robbed or molested by "migrants", illustrates why the events in Cologne will influence the debate on migration in Germany for many months to come.

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  • On 1 January, the Cologne police said that most Silvester festivities in the city took place “peacefully”. (Photo: phil_k)

Even before the report was leaked and published by German media Bild and Sueddeutsche Zeitung on Thursday (7 January), the connection was already made between the assaults, made by groups emerging from a gathering of some 1,000 young “North African or Arab” men, and chancellor Angela Merkel's relatively welcoming refugee policy.

“There are some very serious questions which arise from what has happened which have relevance beyond Cologne”, said Merkel Thursday (7 January).

She said those questions include whether “contempt for women” exists structurally in certain groups in Germany, and that there must be a debate about “the fundamentals of cultural co-existence in Germany”.

Germany is now facing the daunting challenge of interpreting the “horror Silvester”, but also of asking itself some tough questions about integration, political correctness, and sexism.

The leaked report described how on New Year's Eve, called Silvester in Germany, “crying and shocked girls/women” told police of “sexual assaults by multiple male migrants/groups”.

It said one of the perpetrators taunted the police by tearing up a residence permit and saying: “I can get a new one tomorrow”.

The local police forces were apparently completely overwhelmed and unable to protect women from the intoxicated mob. They were “just too many [assaults] at the same time”.

“Since they could not help all crime victims and apprehend the perpetrators, the deployed officials reached the limit of their frustration”, the police officer that wrote the report continued, adding that the police encountered “a lack of respect I have not witnessed in 29 years of service”.

'Peaceful' New Year's Eve?

The report is the antithesis of a press release published just ten hours after the events in Cologne.

On Friday (1 January) at 8:57, the Cologne police said that most Silvester festivities in the city took place “peacefully”.

However, quickly accounts began appearing on social media of the grim atmosphere around Cologne's main train station and cathedral.

While local media such as the Koelner Stadt-Anzeiger and the Express did write about some women being assaulted on Friday (1 January), it took a long time before the extent of the attacks was acknowledged in the greater public sphere.

Some media reported later that some women felt they were not taken seriously by the police.

Either the spokespersons of the Cologne police underestimated the events, or willingly downplayed what had happened.

It was not until the following day that the Cologne police announced in a press release that it had received 30 reports from women who were assaulted by groups of “according to witness accounts North African-looking” men.

While the police is not the only one to blame for the slow public realisation, it received much of the flak.

On the front page of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), commentator Helene Bubrowksi wrote Thursday (7 January) “that the citizen in the centre of a large German city can not rely on the state”, adding that the state “has not protected her when she needed it the most”.

Slow media response

But Bubrowksi's paper was also slow to pick up the news. Readers who only read FAZ in print and avoid online news websites did not learn about the Cologne assaults until Tuesday (5 January), five days after they occurred.

As FAZ author Reiner Burger wrote, this only happens “in the modern connected world” when there is a natural disaster in a remote area, and the perceived magnitude of the disaster increases day by day, with only scarce reports.

Many media saw themselves forced to write about why it took such a long time.

The country's most popular paper, Bild, said that on 1 January the extent of the crimes was not yet known and that they were “relatively small and commonplace”.

The technique that reportedly was used – assaulting women as a distraction to rob them – was not new.

“Journalists report about aggressive gangs of thieves generally only when it is in the public interest, for example when the victim is famous”, the tabloid noted.

But already on Monday afternoon, police president Wolfgang Albers said in a press conference the scale of the assaults was of a “completely new dimension”.

Public broadcaster ZDF was criticised for not reporting on this press conference in its 7PM news programme, and it has since said in a statement that this was a “miscalculation”.

'Inform, not speculate'

One explanation that was given, was that more research was needed. Were the perpetrators really of North African or Arab origin? How could the victims know for sure? If media reported this but it turned out to be wrong, they would influence how migrants are perceived.

“Journalists should inform, but not speculate”, said Frank Uberall, head of the German Federation of Journalists.

But even so, the size of coverage also says something about the importance media gave the development.

Newspapers Die Welt and Suddeutsche Zeitung reported on Albers' press conference in their Tuesday (5 January) editions, but on page 24 and 8 respectively. They were written as features rather than has hard news.

It was not until Wednesday when these papers, and others, devoted their front page and several additional articles to the topic.

The main angle for those stories was the reaction of chancellor Merkel and other politicians. This showed that German mainstream media – like those elsewhere on the continent – are still susceptible to classical authoritative voices.

Despite the many available reports on social media, most media waited to report on the issue until the police, and later politicians, discussed it.

This recalls the findings of media researcher Nick Davies, who in his book Flat Earth News (2008) reported that British media based between 60 to 80 percent of their articles on official sources, press releases and wire copy. Media are often followers of the agenda, not agenda-setters.

Political correctness

Some politicians are now saying that media can also be too careful. Not reporting plays into the hands of populist movements.

A reporter from Die Welt on Wednesday interviewed Julia Klockner, deputy federal chairwoman of Merkel's centre-right CDU party. The paper asked Klockner why it took so long for the scandal to become public.

“That is a question that you and the media should ask yourselves”, said Klockner.

“Surely it is a difficult journalistic consideration, to report truthfully on the one hand, but also on the other hand not to feed prejudgements and prejudices. But [putting on] blinkers and misunderstood political correctness don't help us along either”, she added.


And then there is the position of women in society in general.

Feminist activist Anne Wizorek told newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau Thursday that the background of the Cologne perpetrators should not make a difference.

“Everyone who does something like that should be punished”, she said, adding that the assaults were now being used for racist ends.

“Sexism does not limit itself to [migrants]. (…) We should not only discover this issue when the perpetrators have a migrant background. Those people who criticise what happened in Cologne are often also the ones that play down sexual violence by Germans and blame the affected women.”

The paper noted that one in four German women encounters sexual or physical violence during her life. According to a 2014 EU-wide survey by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, one in three European women has experienced physical and/or sexual violence since she was 15 years old.

But the political focus has already shifted from the victims onto how to punish migrants and refugees who commit crimes.

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