In recent years I have had quite a few opportunities, during seminars with the Oxford Centre for Religion & Public Life, to talk with journalists from some very interesting and very tense corners of the world. Most of the time, we have focused on issues where the freedom of the press intersects with freedom of religion. At some point, free speech is free speech -- whether one is a journalist, an evangelist or a political activist.
After one of our meetings, which centered on academic papers covering the state of press law in at least 12 nations around the world, something really hit me hard, as a journalist working in a land where a drop in ad revenue is a life-and-death crisis. Many journalists around the world have to live with a hard truth: It really doesn't matter what your nation's laws say about freedom of the press if your local police will not stop a mob from burning your newsroom (or worse).
Police in the western German city of Duisburg have admitted they removed flags a student had hung in his apartment in support of Israel during a pro-Palestinian protest march in the city. Officers broke down his door and removed the flags. The city's police chief has issued an apology, but outrage is spreading.
It's certainly not a new phenomenon in Germany for feathers to be ruffled every time bombs fall or rockets fly in the Middle East. It is unusual, though, for German police officials to use force to enter into an apartment and remove an Israeli flag from a bedroom because people protesting the Gaza Strip invasion on the street below are bothered by it.
The demonstration by 10,000 or so people was organized by an Islamist group that was being monitored by German authorities, so it's safe to assume that it was being taped by a wide variety of people -- those in the crowd and those studying the crowd. The YouTube video at the top shows a small piece of what happened.
But the key is what the tape cannot show, which is the actions of the police. Here's one more piece of the report:
At a house on the corner, protesters spotted two Israeli flags -- one hanging from a balcony and the second from the window of a bedroom inside the apartment. Twenty-five-year-old student Peter P. and his 26-year-old girlfriend had mounted them there. [The name of the main source of this story has been changed at his request by the editorial staff.] ...
As the first protesters recognized the flag, P. and his girlfriend were standing on the street nearby. He said he followed the march because he wanted to document any incidents of anti-Semitism or hate campaigns. He described the sentiment that developed within the crowd as it viewed the Israeli flag as tantamount to that of a "lynch mob." "Death to Israel," some of the protestors shouted. He said the police appeared to be overburdened.
"Suddenly," the student explained, "I saw a police officer on the balcony on the second floor" in the apartment located directly beneath his. The officer ripped down the Israeli flag that had been affixed to P.'s balcony. A short time later he witnessed an officer inside his own apartment taking down the flag that had been hung in the bedroom.
Police argued that they did what they had to do to defuse a dangerous situation. Still, their actions have unleashed a fierce debate about freedom of expression in Germany. Clearly the protesters had a right to march, to carry offensive signs and to chant slogans, perhaps even violent slogans. But did they have the right to issue threats that forced police to make this kind of choice?
What if the crowd had threatened a newsroom? What if the crowd had threatened the newsroom of a Jewish magazine? There are all kinds of questions that I would like to ask about this incident. The Spiegel online report offers troubling details. I am hope that journalists here in America are paying attention.
Again, our goal is not to debate events in Gaza. Our goal is to debate the coverage of this event in German and what it means about freedom of expression in Germany and, perhaps, the European Union.