German broadcaster requires employees to ‘support Israel’s right to exist’

Deutsche Welle’s new code of conduct marks the latest Israel-related crackdown on free speech in German public life.

On Sept. 1, Germany’s international broadcaster, Deutsche Welle (DW) updated its Code of Conduct to require all employees, when speaking either on behalf of the organization or in a personal capacity, to “support the right of Israel to exist” or face consequences, such as dismissal.

The new code, which compels all DW employees to “maintain restraint in the content and form of our social media and other publications in both a professional and private context,” mentions Israel twice when referring to the company’s commitments against racism and antisemitism, including the statement that Germany, due to its “history,” has a “special obligation toward Israel.” By contrast, there was no mention of Israel in DW’s former code.

The binding nature of the code for all employees and DW subsidiaries is repeated several times throughout. It calls on management to take action against any behavior that would violate the code, and includes several references to the potential consequences of its violation, including investigation and termination of contract.

What this might mean in practice, however, remains vague. Should such an “obligation” include unwavering support for the Israeli state or government, it would raise important questions related to the independence of the German press. DW did not respond to +972’s request for comment. 

Germany’s ‘reason of state’

Despite promoting itself as a democracy and safe haven for the press and freedom of speech, Germany, and its international broadcaster, Deutsche Welle, consistently censor and crack down on any critique of the State of Israel. 

In many ways, the broadcaster is simply following the example set by the German government. The clampdown on criticism of Israel in Germany has intensified considerably since the Bundestag adopted the controversial definition of antisemitism, which conflates criticism of Israel with antisemitism, which was put forth by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) in 2017. Since then, the government has passed an anti-BDS resolution that effectively censors Palestinian artists, academics, activists, and journalists

The intolerance toward any criticism of Israel has deep roots. On March 18, 2008, Chancellor Angela Merkel gave a speech to the Israeli Knesset whose key sentence gave the impression that she had formulated a completely new guideline for German foreign policy: “This historical responsibility of Germany is part of my country’s reason of state,” she said.

Ever since, however, Germany has been vague about what its obligation to Israel means in practice, a point raised by German investigative journalist Stefan Buchen in his Berlin Zeitung article on DW: “Nobody knows exactly what ‘reason of state’ means, what political consequences it has,” Buchen wrote. “Will the Bundeswehr [the German armed forces] stand by Israel in a war, for example against Iran? Will Germany take in larger numbers of Palestinian refugees from Gaza or the West Bank in the future if their stay in the Middle East endangers Israel’s security? Since no one knows exactly what reason of state obliges, one could also consider the sentence to be a rather hollow phrase.”

“Generally speaking, of course Germany has a specific responsibility to Jewish people,” said Sinthujan Varatharajah, an independent researcher and essayist based in Berlin. “How could it not considering the Shoah it eagerly committed? But Germany’s commitment has to be towards human rights — that is, human rights of everyone, rather than the rights of a selective group.”

In Varatharajah’s eyes, Germany “doesn’t have the right to support the human rights abuses of another state to morally rid itself of the guilt it carries for its violent past. DW’s treatment and framing of Palestinian issues shows that its journalism is anything but ‘neutral.’ It’s state politics.” This, Varatharajah says, comes as no surprise. “It is a reflection of contemporary German state rhetoric and political practices, something we see happening in the Bundestag, the police, all the way to the Goethe Institut. DW is no different.”

Unlawful dismissals

The release of the new Code of Conduct follows a months-long investigation that led to the firing of seven Palestinian and Arab journalists earlier this year, after they were accused of antisemitism. A +972 report found that DW’s investigation was politically motivated and focused on scapegoating Arab and particularly Palestinian journalists, creating an environment of fear, distrust, and strict self-censorship when it comes to Israel-Palestine. 

Yet despite attempts to quash criticisms of Israel inside the company, DW’s climate of censorship was dealt a blow this week after a Berlin court ruled that Farah Maraqa, a former DW journalist, was wrongfully terminated following a controversial investigation and unfounded allegations of antisemitism. The court ordered DW to reinstate Maraqa and pay her legal costs.

Maraqa’s is the second lawsuit that DW has lost on the firings. On July 7, 2022, the Bonn Labour Court found that DW’s dismissal of Palestinian journalist Maram Salim was also unlawful. In yet another case, DW settled with one of the Arab journalists it had fired. The remaining cases are still pending. Salim, who describes herself as an “advocate of women’s rights, human rights, animal rights,” has demanded the German broadcaster issue a public apology and retract its accusations. 

“We hope [the Maraqa ruling] sends a clear message that DW should stop its censorship practices,” said Giovanni Fassina, the program director at the European Legal Support Center (ELSC), an organization that defends advocates for Palestinian rights across Europe through legal means. “This case illustrates how the institutionalization of the IHRA can lead to severe infringements upon freedom of expression and freedom of the press.” 

Despite the recent legal victories, some believe the new Code of Conduct will open the door for further censorship of anyone who criticizes the State of Israel. For Michael Sappir, an Israeli writer and journalist based in Germany, the changes at DW “essentially require journalists paid by the German public to align themselves on a key issue of political contention with the German state — a flagrantly anti-democratic measure. 

“This move further solidifies the narrow bounds of acceptable opinion in Germany and puts in writing the red lines that have already been laid down in practice in many institutions and media houses,” he added. 

According to Sappir, the result will have a stifling effect on public debate, force journalists to toe the government line on reporting in the Middle East, and further silence the voices of people of non-European background, particularly those of Arab descent, but also of dissenting Jews, including Israelis living in Germany. “Requiring an oath of loyalty on an issue that affects some of us far more than others is an example of structural discrimination and exclusion,” Sappir said, “regardless of the values it might be purported to protect.”