Research on the media coverage of protests and social movements has shown that reporting often marginalizes and denigrates such movements. According to the widely-researched ‘protest paradigm’, media are often critical towards protests, and legitimise the state’s responses to them. Partly, this is based on the sources of journalists and the level of legitimacy that is assigned to them. The protests against the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, where a violent police assault against a lawful protest march was followed by days of clashes and rioting, offer an interesting case study.
In the evening of July 6th, 2017, the day before the summit started, more than 10,000 people gathered at the ‘fish market’, a central area close to the harbour, for a concert of several local bands and performers. At 7pm they formed a demonstration to march towards the congress centre – a march which had been registered by the organisers and approved by the authorities. However, police immediately blocked and surrounded the march (with the explanation that some protesters were wearing masks) and, shortly after, began a major assault with water cannons, tear gas, and baton charges. Those who were there or were watching the live stream provided by the alternative media centre FC/MC witnessed the brutal and unprovoked charges of the police, with protestors dispersing and fleeing.
Meanwhile, the online news updates by one of Germany’s most influential news media – Der Spiegel – showed tweets from the official police Twitter account. One of them claimed that police were cooperating with the protest organisers in separating the ‘black bloc’, another that ‘unfortunately’ the protesters were confrontational and so the police had to intervene. And while viewers of the FC/MC live stream were watching police indiscriminately baton-charging protesters, the Spiegel timeline included another official police tweet that claimed: ‘A peaceful continuation of the demonstration is possible. Distance yourselves from the perpetrators’. These and other police announcements could have easily and quickly been exposed as false claims and ‘fake news’, but they remained in the timeline, setting the tone for the further reporting and analysis.
As a liberal media organisation with a history of critical investigative reporting, Der Spiegel would not limit its coverage to reporting police statements. It incorporated videos about creative protest actions and criticised police tactics as ‘chaotic and dangerous’. It did thereby attempt a balance in reporting and concluded that both sides had a role in the escalation – violent protesters and heavy-handed police. While this went beyond the simplistic blaming of protesters by other media, the neutral claim that ‘violence broke out’ (as the Guardian put it) did not reflect actual events. Several individual journalists tweeted about excessive violence by the police, and smaller newspapers such as tageszeitung were more explicit in highlighting the role of the police in assaulting the demonstration and triggering violent confrontations across the city. Yet most media merely considered (or praised) the ‘toughness’ and ‘rigour’ of the police, using language that belittled violence against lawful protest and ignored the violation of citizens’ constitutional rights.
As rioting ensued the following day, most reporting focused on justifying this ‘toughness’, and few questioned the deployment of heavily-armed special forces, even as police pointed guns at journalists and took away journalist accreditations. Physical attacks against journalists by police, including beatings and the use of pepper spray, were sparsely mentioned; further police attacks against parts of the official closing demonstration and against peaceful street parties after the end of the protests were either omitted or reported according to police statements; and other infringements, such as the denial of granting lawyers access to their clients who were in police custody, went largely unnoticed. Media, including liberal media such as the Guardian, continued to reproduce claims by the police, for example about protesters throwing (and/or preparing) molotov cocktails. And the live newsfeed of Der Spiegel continued to be partly sourced from police tweets and press statements (with updates carrying the addition ‘nach Angaben der Polizeipressestelle’, i.e. ‘according to the police press office’).
Despite some cautious criticism of police tactics, this case of protest reporting demonstrates how media failed to hold the state accountable for violations of civil rights by using police statements as factual evidence. The alternative media centre FC/MC was set up, not least, in response to this challenge and to expose journalists to other perspectives on G20 and the protests. The G20 protests demonstrated that the police is necessarily a party in such conflict situations, rather than a neutral arbiter, and it has a strategic approach to information dissemination. Good journalism will be aware of this, will verify claims from this source, just like from any other, and will treat such claims as one of many perspectives on a conflict situation. Good journalism will highlight violations of constitutional rights and civil liberties, especially if those are perpetrated by state institutions.
Update (11 July): In the aftermath of the protests, public debate has focused on the actions of a group of rioters, in one particular street of the city, on one evening during the week of protests. Politicians and police used this riot to generate public sentiment against the protests and call for repressive measures such as an international database on ‘left-wing extremists’ and the ‘violent eviction’ of Hamburg’s autonomist social centre ‘Rote Flora’ (even though the centre had publicly condemned the riots). Despite a few critical commentaries, most media (including liberal media such as Der Spiegel and The Guardian) represented the statements of government officials and police without critically investigating them and without giving equal (or any) space for counter-claims by the protesters. Numbers of injured police were widely published (and rarely questioned), numbers of injured protesters were entirely absent from the reporting. Criticism of police violence largely disappeared from the public and media discourse. The demonstration of July 6th – not the police assault on it – was re-interpreted as the starting-point for the violent confrontations that emerged later.