When journalist Marvin Oppong began photographing the scene of an accident involving a police car and a taxi, he was just doing his job. But before long Oppong ended up being violently detained by police and stripped of his camera’s memory card.
“What happened is that I stumbled across something which made the police look bad”, Oppong told Mapping Media Freedom. “That’s why I was treated the way I was. Their objective was to get me, and my evidence, out of the way – with violence if need be. They didn’t want anyone there taking pictures. I had images of the wrecked police vehicle which could be relevant for a future criminal investigation. Taking my evidence might be relevant under criminal law.”
The facts of the incident are clear: Two vehicles collided. A passenger in one of the two cars, a taxi, was seriously injured. The driver of the police car appeared to be at fault. Emergency services and police officers responded. A local journalist turned up to the scene to document the smash-up – the bread and butter work of local news reporters globally.
When a second journalist, freelancer Thomas Kraus, began filming Oppong’s arrest, a police officer tried to stop filming.
Oppong later tweeted that the public prosecutor later said that the police officer was under criminal investigation.
Mapping Media Freedom has verified a number of incidents involving members of the public services interfering with journalists filming events.
In May 2018 MMF reported on the case of firefighters abusing and threatening journalists at the scene of a road traffic accident in the Mecklenburg lake district. The driver was returning from an event run by a volunteer fire service where he was acting as a child minder, and initial reports suggested the responding firefighters believed him to be a member of the volunteer fire service. He was almost one and a half times over the legal drink-drive limit. Firefighters attempted to make journalists leave even though police had given them permission to be at scene. Later that night the journalists received abusive and threatening phone calls and, as a result, a police car was stationed outside their home.
In October 2017 Bild reporter Karl Keim filmed the arrest of a suspect wanted for knife crimes in Munich on his mobile phone. Police ordered him to delete the footage, threatening to confiscate his phone if he did not comply. When he did not immediately obey the police order, he was told “we can just resolve this with physical force if you like?”. In panic Keim unlocked his phone and the officers deleted the footage themselves.
In March 2016 in Munich TAZ journalist Laura Meschede used her phone to film what looked like a particularly brutal arrest. The officer ordered her to stop filming, threatened confiscation of her phone and physically manhandled her. The next day, Meschede found out – from a police press release – that the arrest she had attempted to film was of a man trying to film a third arrest and, according to police, “got physical” when asked to stop.
“This kind of thing is happening more often”, said Sven Adam, a lawyer who represents journalists on the receiving end of police aggression, in an interview for online magazine ZAPP. Lawyer Marco Noli in an interview for national weekly TAZ mentioned that the police increasingly use video themselves for evidence – “but that is their material, which they can edit. There are numerous examples, he told TAZ, of police editing out their own misconduct. “I think this is the reason why police are so vehemently attacking people who film them”, Noli said. “They fear that smartphones could end the era in which they alone get to decide what video material ends up in court.”
In fact, video evidence gathered by police was instrumental in the 27 convictions for offences related to rioting at the G20 summit in Hamburg. Even after critical journalists had their accreditation revoked or not recognised and were beaten and pepper sprayed by police, journalists responded to calls by Hamburg police to share their footage to help identify and prosecute suspects.
Journalists supplied several hundred gigabytes of data, which would correspond to 15 hours or more of video footage. The major German media houses sent all their broadcasted material, and one of their production companies sent all their unused material also. Private broadcaster RTL said they have a duty to assist the authorities when it appears a crime has been committed, also by surrendering unused material, unless it would compromise sources. Public broadcasters NDR and ZDF by contrast say they refuse in all circumstances, as did national daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. They pointed out that people won’t talk to journalists if journalists can’t protect them, and worse, the danger that people will become openly hostile to journalists, in particular at large events, if they perceive journalists as working hand-in-hand with the authorities rather than as neutral reporters.
In an interview for NDR Hamburg police chief Ralf Martin Meyer stressed the voluntary nature of the co-operation but hinted that things might not necessarily always be so friendly. He said there were circumstances in which police are justified in confiscating material. The police have a duty, he said, to clarify what happened. If they don’t, “they can make themselves criminally liable for aiding a perpetrator of an act after the fact by preventing their prosecution.”
Former Federal Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schanrrenberger, of the neo-liberal FDP, criticised the police in an interview for public broadcaster NDR: “To require unused material is in my eyes not justified. First and foremost editorial confidentiality applies, first and foremost the freedom of the press and free speech must be protected. This is anchored in law. One cannot require of the media to be a kind of support policeman.”
The ubiquity of smartphones has come into conflict with a keen appreciation of the importance of the right to privacy in Germany, which has robust data protection laws. Germans are more suspicious about social media and don’t use it to share photographs and videos of themselves and each other as much as in other countries. CCTV is much more controversial and tightly controlled in Germany. The German press code tightly limits the circumstances under which journalists may publish the identity or the image of a suspect, defendant or victim.
It is not surprising that this keen sense of privacy in the population as a whole is reflected in police and public services culture. Remarkably, by global law enforcement standards, most German police uniforms do not display an officer’s name or even badge number. Their introduction has been consistently and vehemently opposed by the main police union, GdP, who say they are not necessary, place all officers under a “general suspicion”, and pose a risk to the sanctity of individual officers’ private and home life. Amnesty International has criticised this lack of police accountability in its submission for the UN Universal Periodic Review, noting that even where individual officers can be identified, a further obstacle is that none of Germany’s police forces have a truly independent body to examine complaints against police.
Legally anyone may film police and public services as long as it does not obstruct their work and respects the privacy rights of anyone involved in the incident. Journalists additionally enjoy the constitutionally protected right to practice their profession and freedom of the press.
Tensions are usually resolved by production of a press ID card, which should reassure officers that the journalists are professionals: They won’t obstruct, they won’t trample all over evidence, they won’t take and publish distasteful images of helpless individuals suffering. A spokesperson for the GdP told ZAPP that there are “absolutely no problems with professional journalists on the ground”; police receive extensive training on press law “and the behaviour towards journalists is generally characterised by great tolerance.”
The most respected press ID card in Germany is jointly issued by the six large press associations. There is no special training or exams required to get one. However, they are only available to people who work as professional journalists full time or as their main job Accordingly, they are not available to journalists who work part time and who are not paid.
The police service claims that Oppong was arrested because he never identified himself as a journalist, and that they released him as soon as they established he was.
Oppong disputes the police version of events. “I told them I was a journalist many times but they weren’t interested. They didn’t want to see my press ID card. They didn’t even want to see my ordinary citizens’ ID card until I was in the cell. So I think they didn’t arrest me to ascertain my identity or to check whether I was entitled to take photographs because all that could already have been done at the scene.”
Oppong vehemently rebuts the police story, regurgitated unquestioningly in much of the local media, that his removal from the scene was necessary because he was obstructing the work of responders and trampling all over evidence. “The scene wasn’t cordoned off at any point in time. I always maintained a respectful distance. The video showing the sequence when I was taken into custody also shows people standing in the area in which the police had not allowed me to be in before. It shows that six police officers were participating in taking me into custody. If securing the area had really been so imperative, some of those six might have taken on this task.”
Oppong is facing criminal charges for resisting arrest, assault on police and violation of privacy rights by taking pictures. As well as defending these charges, Oppong is pursuing criminal charges against the officers involved including misconduct in public office and false imprisonment.