Informational tour „Media(Self)Regulation” | 2011

Freedom needs regulation

Participants' feedback. By Sebastian Blottner

Pluralism Instead of "Toeing the Line"

Free and independent media and a functioning democracy are the two sides of the same coin. Germany's history is living proof of that. The very robust structure of Germany's media landscape and its design that makes for as much pluralism as possible resulted from the devastating experience of National Socialism. Purpose-designed and proven mechanisms were created in order to prevent similar developments right from the start. It was readily understood that the intention of the Visitors' Program was to transmit exactly this: "I really didn't expect recent German history to be so present and to find references to it in the architecture of all of the institutions we visited as well as in the presentations of all of the speakers." (Ondrej Aust, Czech Republic)

Every media market needs regulatory mechanisms. In these last decades a multi-faceted system has evolved in Germany that might be a model to follow for countries that lack a history of and experience with media freedom and media (self-)regulation. In the European Union this concerns at the moment its most recent member countries in Eastern and Southeastern Europe.

Participants of the Visitors' Program "Media(Self-)Regulation" came from these regions: Croatia, Hungary, the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic. In each of these countries the current theme is (the right) "media regulation", even if the focus does shift somewhat from one country to the next. For example, one participant from Croatia was involved in the process of founding an authoritative body comparable to the German Presserat. The colleagues from Hungary, on the other hand, are caught up in very different developments ever since a highly debated and, from many sides, sharply criticized media law came into force. 

The feedback from participants was unanimous in one point, namely that the broad range of the program and the really quite unique media system in Germany afforded valuable insights and quite a bit of food for thought. "Self-regulation is presently being introduced in Croatia and since the German model was used to set up our Press Council, the entire trip was extremely interesting for me." (Vesna Roller, Croatia) 

The German system of media regulation was praised either in its entirety or at least in many of its aspects and it was believed to be a model for other countries. "As we got a very wide view on different institutions and regulations of media and press, I'm even more convinced now, that our new media law is really very bad because it controls the whole spectrum of media by the same principles. But they are very different and have different problems and they need different regulations, as we could understand here in Germany. I think we should do something similar." (Ibolya Jakus, Hungary)

Well-Balanced: German Institutional Multiplicity

The high degree of differentiation between the competent institutions raised a lot of interest among participants. Despite the short visit, participants gained good insight into the complex and weighted balance of the regulatory mechanism of the German media system and at times they were surprised that the mechanisms worked. "It was absolutely super to have the theme be presented from so many different angles." (Marika Adamovská, Slovak Republic)

Atomization of institutions, which, often enough, is the criticism in Germany, was not really discussed by participants. A pluralistic organizational setup was seen by some as being to their advantage: As the program unfolded it became clear that Germany's federal structure is in many instances reflected by the way the media are organized. Victorija Car from Croatia noted that a federal structure was not typical for European countries and so the highly complex and regionally diversified regulatory action in Germany constituted a light bulb moment for her on this trip; whilst German specificities based on federalism can serve as a model only to a limited extent because participants' home countries are mostly much smaller in size and with a different organizational setup.

Do It Yourself – The Strategy of Self-Regulation

Quite a number of participants mentioned that the biggest difference to the media markets in their home countries was the system of self-regulation. Germany has pursued a strategy of self-regulation as an alternative to the legislative process and has fared well with it. The "Presserat" (Press Council) and the "Verein Freiwillige Selbstkontrolle" (Voluntary Self-Monitoring Ass.) are two examples by which self-regulation was introduced in Germany. Special attention was paid to these bodies because they offer regulatory action outside of the sphere of influence of the State. It was, however, recognized that some of the institutions do have their shortcomings. "Perhaps self-regulation could be an answer – we don't have that in Hungary and maybe it would work better than the legislative process. Hungary could learn a lot from Germany about self-regulation." (Annamária Mayer, Hungary)

The "Presserat" was mentioned a number of times as being an obvious and outstanding example of media self-regulation. Journalists' working conditions was a further topic of repeated discussion and also in this context the significance of self-regulation.

Are There Flaws In The System? 

When asked about any evident deficits of the German system, participants had very little criticism and usually only more praise for the media landscape in this country. Some raised as being problematic the fact that regulatory responsibilities were organized along the lines of different media categories. "Breaking media up into different categories corresponds less and less with future media use and media production. We need new definitions." (Annamária Mayer)

Although the discussion of public broadcasting companies in Germany and how they are financed was touched on here and there, participants nevertheless liked the system and thought it positive. Despite the heated discussion - that we became aware of- on how the public broadcasting companies are operated and financed, they are nevertheless of great benefit. (Ondrej Aust, Czech Republic) Even the somewhat negative criticism voiced by FDP-parliamentarian Müller-Sönksen could not change the predominantly positive impression. "The FDP-politician took a very conservative view. When you take into consideration a population of 80 million and a federal structure then maybe this is the best way to go about it." (Marika Adamovská, Slovak Republic)

Here and Elsewhere – The Debate on Media Freedom

The public debate on general issues of media freedom is not perceived as something specific to participants' home countries nor is it believed to be a particularly German debate. Therefore, it can rightly be called a European discourse. "This debate is already quite interlinked and globalized, so differences are hard to pinpoint." (Marika Adamovská, Slovak Republic) 

Yet some countries do have a greater need for discussion with regard to the degree of media independence. "Problems arising from dependence on advertising and publishers could perhaps have been given more room, since surely the same problems exist in Germany as in other countries. But political independence is more developed here." (Viktorija Car, Croatia)

One participant stated it very clearly that theory without practice would not guarantee a functioning system and that Germany had the advantage of many years of experience. "As far as the media laws on the books are concerned, Croatia is not that far behind Germany, but the situation on the ground is very different – not least because of the long standing tradition of German institutions. Our democracy is only 20 years old and that is a big difference." (Vesna Roller, Croatia)

However, as far as the public debate goes, Hungary is a special case because the new media law has split the country. "The public in Hungary is very divided and that goes for journalists as well. We even have two professional journalists' associations – one pro government and the other non-conformist. And there is no contact between the two whatsoever." (Ibolya Jakus, Hungary)

Opinions on German Involvement in Other Countries

Germany's commitment on the international level offering advice and support on media law issues and questions concerning regulatory methods was seen in a very positive light. As a matter of fact, the visitors' program is already one example of this commitment and it was greatly appreciated as an enriching experience. Our countries do not offer these kinds of programs. Germany is able to afford them, yet it is not obliged to organize them. Germany has gotten involved because it believes in dialog with other countries and that can't be bad. (Ondrej Aust, Czech Republic)

On the whole, Germany's involvement and that of its institutions, to the extent it was known, was praised and felt to be very positive. 

In the context of developments in Hungary the issue of international involvement was quite virulent. Hungarian media researcher and academic, Annamária Mayer, however, did not interpret this as being negative. "It's good to know how things are seen from the outside. When Germany holds an opinion then it's important to ask questions and to persist. This visit was an excellent opportunity for us to meet and get to know journalists and opinions from all different quarters." (Annamária Mayer, Hungary) Mayers colleague Ibolya Jakus at least questioned whether outside pressure would bring about the desired results. "I've come to understand that people are informed in Germany and that they are worried. But at the end of the day, we are the ones who have to act. The first thing we have to do is regain independence for the media in Hungary." (Ibolya Jakus, Hungary) Only after a change in government would it be possible to study the possibility of adopting some of the details of the German model; quite improbable any time before that.

Experience from other countries does show, however, that mere international watchfulness can already have a positive effect.

Conclusion: You Can Make It

When asked what their conclusion at the end of the visitors' programme was, participants, across the board, came up with a positive result. The overriding impression was that Germany has come up with a workable system of media regulation and that self-regulation mechanisms are a desirable complement to the State's regulatory action. To have learned that such a system can actually work has been a motivational uplift for some participants and it might even have given rise to some jealousy: "I'm jealous of your problems." (Ibolya Jakus, Hungary)