The overall environment is favorable to journalism, but violence and verbal attacks are on the rise. Draft bills threaten the protection of journalistic sources, access to information is fragmented and media pluralism has been decreasing.
Media pluralism has eroded for economic reasons since the 1990s, especially with regards to local newspapers. The biggest tabloid, Bild, has lost a large share of its readership, much more so than quality papers such as the left-liberal Süddeutsche Zeitung or the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, whose online versions have become increasingly popular. The audiovisual sector features both private and public broadcasters, the latter (ARD, ZDF, Deutschlandfunk) providing regional, national and international reporting.
The role of the media as a pillar of democracy is widely accepted by the political class with exceptions on the far right. German media have a long tradition of criticizing both government and opposition, with most newspapers having an editorial line close to a political camp. Political journalism in the audiovisual media is dominated by the public broadcasters whose independence is protected by the legislation, although certain personnel decisions raise suspicion of political influence.
Solid constitutional guarantees and an independent judiciary ensure a favorable environment, but access to information laws are weak by international standards. Moreover, certain government officials and lawmakers push for far-reaching security laws criminalizing the handling of leaked data or allowing German intelligence to hack into devices or intercept encrypted communication without judicial oversight. Good journalistic practices are encouraged by the self-regulatory German press council that can issue resolutions but not impose sanctions.
Many media in Germany struggle financially, a trend accelerated by decrease of advertising revenues during the Covid-19 pandemic. Media concentration is rather heavy. Internet and social networks opened new, affordable possibilities for independent reporting, but a license is still required for live broadcasting. Big companies occasionally use Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) to intimidate the press. Cases of advertisers influencing journalistic content have been denounced by the German press council.
Journalists are free to cover any topic and to voice any opinion as long as they respect the constitution. However, female journalists, people of color and reporters covering gender issues and racism are especially confronted with an increasing hostility on social networks. Journalists are also increasingly accused of being too government-friendly by critics of Germany’s anti-coronavirus measures. Populist politicians try to foment mistrust towards the media.
Journalists have been increasingly threatened, harassed and physically attacked. Most violations are attributable to right-wing or far-right actors, while some are perpetrated by individuals close to the radical left and by the police. The years 2020 and 2021 were very violent, especially at protests against Covid-19-related restrictions, where dozens of reporters were attacked. Though physical violence is prosecuted regularly, online harassment usually goes unpunished. Reporters covering protests are occasionally arrested.