Peter Limbourg is the Director General of Germany’s powerful public service broadcaster, Deutsche Welle or DW. Last month when he delivered his key note speech at the 10th edition of the Global Media Forum in Bonn, he warned the ‘rulers and despots’ from around the world to desist from curbing media freedom in their countries adding that ‘any ruler who chokes freedom of press will fail in the long run.’
Not only did his key note speech diagnose the problems media fraternity was facing across the globe, Limbourg also focussed on the role of journalists, owners of media houses and governments going forward.
He said, “Today we find ourselves in turbulent times, which also have consequences for our world. International broadcasting is experiencing a renaissance. As the number of crises and conflicts increase, so does the importance of the international broadcasters. This entails a growing responsibility for comprehensive and objective reporting. International broadcasters should never take sides with only one exception; when it comes to human rights. Our main job is to inform. Our listeners, readers and viewers rely on us. We want to enable them to make better decisions based on our information to improve their understanding of the world. To make one thing absolutely clear, the media are not the enemy of the people. We are working to people’s interests. And I have a message.
“We all should have this message for all despots, autocrats and dictators. You will not oppress freedom of speech forever. Freedom of speech is stronger than you are. Any ruler who chokes freedom of press will fail in the long run.”
I caught up with him for a brief chat soon after the conference ended.
Here are the excerpts:
RJ: First of all, Congratulations for hosting such an amazing event, bringing journalists from around the world and creating an atmosphere for exchanging our ideas which pretty much affect everyone around the world. So, my understanding is Media in Germany is thriving than media in India, from where we come from. What do you have to say about this?
PL: Media Landscape in Germany is very diverse. The public service stations which are very strong, and have more than 50% of the market share and they get a lot of money from fees. The private sector is also very strong because we have a very strong economy, so you can earn a lot of commercial money you can earn here. For many new platforms, digitalisation is working and you also have hundreds of newspapers. You have hundreds of newspapers, but they are in print as everywhere in the world, they are facing difficulties. Because the older tend to use print whereas the younger are using internet and social media, so they are a problem. We will probably see a couple of newspapers going off the market. But then we see another platform is rising. So journalism is quite strong in Germany and I think we are in quite lucky position if we compare it to other parts of the world.
RJ: As you rightly said, other parts of the world, we come from India and the public service broadcaster is often deemed as a propaganda machine for the ruling party. How much interference from the government do you face here in Germany?
PL: Well, here we have politicians who absolutely respect our independence. When I started, I thought maybe there are some interference, but I don’t have anybody who pushes me to one direction or tells me what to broadcast. Obviously, we have discussions with the government or the parliament who has given us the money, where we should maybe go more, which languages probably should we use, change in the strategy. But these are normal things. These are normal things you do for the people who gave you money. But the content is really sacred for and this is our big big advantage in Deutsche Welle that we are very independent media.
RJ: But there is a debate going on that Germany, despite having such a big public service broadcaster guaranteeing the independence of media, is also debating whether there should be punitive action against social media platforms that don’t take down posts in a timeliness manner.
PL: In a democracy, this is a normal thing, where politicians like to control the platforms, and force them to delete content which is against German Law, its not about a content which you may like or not like, it should be content which is against the law…
RJ: So they violate the law…..
PL: The content should be taken off if you violate the law which from the principles one can appreciate. The question is how do you really do it in practice and there we have a debate and thus we have this law which is now in the discussion and I don’t see it coming in the next month. Also I don’t think there would be a decision before the next elections in Germany. It is a normal democratic process, but believe me Freedom of Speech and opinion will be held up in Germany and this is good news.
RJ : Things are very rosy for journalists here in Germany now, but it wasn’t there all the time and we are talking about Nazi era, where press were banned, propaganda machinery for Hitler ruled the roost. Why I am discussing this is because in India often, because we are going through a turbulent time, people draw a parallel with how things were during the Hitler time. What’s your recollection of that?
PL : Well, that was a long time ago and I was born definitely after years of these dark times for Germany, where the media landscape was controlled 100% and absolutely no free press, zero, and we learnt from this. But I am 100% sure that no country in the world can compare the situation in Germany during the Hitler from 1933 to 1945 especially in India where you have a lot of private entrepreneurs and media companies, so whatever station you think of, you have a lot of diversit. So this is not comparable.
RJ: So what would your message to those, who are compromising on media’s independence, whether they are owners, politicians, business houses, who own media particularly in India?
PL: Well to all media companies in India, I would send out a message that to co-operate with the DW but to also take care of the content, but on the other hand I am not the one who should advise how they run their companies but the results of the media outlets are normally quite good when the user or the viewer have an impression of the media’s independence. For example what happened to Washington Post, where a very rich man came and bought it and he’s not interfering with the journalism. It’s a good model and should be there everywhere in the world bit soon but we hope for the best.
(Rifat Jawaid is the foudner of Janta Ka Reporter and has 23 years of experience in journalism 12 of which he spent working with the BBC in UK and India as a senior executive. He’s also worked with India Today as the Managing Editor-newsgathering for the group’s four TV channels.)
Coming UP: Rifat Jawaid speaks to journalists from Africa, Arab World, Europe and Afghanistan on their experiences of working in extreme hostile conditions.