Deutscher Presserat, German Press Council
Mr Lutz Tillmans (Managing Director)
PO Box 100549
Tel: (+49) 030- 367007- 0
Fax: (+49) 030- 367007- 20
The journalistic principles of the German Press Council define the professional ethics of the press — including the duty of maintaining the standing of the press and defending press freedom. The constitutional framework for the press's self-monitoring is provided by Article 5 para. 1 of the Constitution with its guarantees of basic individual rights. It ensures freedom to express opinions and freedom of information, guarantees freedom of press, broadcasting and film and emphasises the prohibition of censorship.
Each of the Land (province, state) press laws emphasizes the basic principle of the freedom of the press. All those laws contain provisions that are fundamental for the understanding of a voluntary self-monitoring by the press. The principle of professional self-monitoring has been familiar for a long time. If effective, it makes control by the state superfluous and, thus, ensures the freedom of the press.
In 1952 the Federal government submitted a draft Press Act, providing for the establishment of a self-monitoring instance under public law. This draft met with tremendous opposition from the journalist and publisher associations and was not carried through.
Inspired by the British Press Council of 1953, the journalist and publisher associations formed the German Press Council on November 20, 1956. The German PC is a non-profit association, an organ of the major associations of the press under private law. Its structure and duties are governed in its statutes (1985). Two members from each of the four organisations belong to the members' assembly or sponsoring organization, which primarily is dealing with legal, financial and staff decisions of the PC.
The so called “Plenum” (plenary) of the German PC is the main body of the PC and consists of 28 members – each of the four organizations sending seven members to it. There are also two complaints committees elected from the 28-member plenary: two general complaints commissions with eight members each and one with six members for editorial data protection. All of the bodies of the German PC are staffed by publishers and journalists for a period of two years upon the proposal of the sponsor organisation. The chair of the bodies changes every two years among the four organisations. According to Article 9 of its statutes, the PC has the following duties:
- To determine irregularities in the press and to work towards clearing them up
- To stand up for unhindered access to the sources of news
- To give recommendations and guidelines for journalistic work
- To stand against developments which could endanger free information and formation of opinions among the public
- To investigate and decide on complaints about individual newspapers, magazines or press services
- Encourage self-regulation of editorial data protection
In performing its duties the Press Council issues recommendations and guidelines. The journalistic principles and the guidelines are contained in the Press Code or Code of Conduct [see the Code section]. The key task of the Press Council is, thus, to investigate and to decide on individual complaints on publications in the press. This is done on the basis of a complaints order that ensures that everybody can turn to the Press Council free of charge in order to receive help from there.
Every year, more than 700 people, associations, institutions, etc. write to the German Press Council seeking help and making complaints. They are complaining about publications due to possible infringements against the duties of care, due to search methods by journalists or due to the infringement of the right to personal freedom, for example within the framework of court reporting. Often questions in connection with the publication of readers' letters or satirical contributions have to be answered and investigated as to whether the contribution contains discriminatory information on groups of people.
Approximately 50% of all complaints can be dealt with at an early stage without a formal decision by the complaints commission. Sometimes the central office of the German Press Council can successfully mediate between the parties concerned. In justified cases the complaints commission of the German Press Council issues editorial notes, censures and - in the case of severe journalistic infringements - public reprimands. The latter have to be published in the publication complained about within the framework of a voluntary undertaking. More than 95% of all publishing houses in Germany have voluntarily signed to publish reprimands and to accept the press code as the ethical guideline.
These measures of the German Press Council, in the event of infringements of the Press Code being detected, in particular censures and reprimands, are a form of "peer scolding" that is particularly unpopular in publishing houses.
Since January 1, 2002, the German Press Council also has taken responsibility for self-regulation of editorial data protection in the press. The Press Code, which already contained regulations on the issue of individuals’ rights in its existing versions, has been supplemented to cover this new task. If a reader believes that his or her data have not being handled properly in an editorial office he or she can make a complaint about this to the Press Council. The complaints about the violation of individuals’ rights are then dealt with according to the expanded Press Code. In addition, a catalogue with precautions for data security in editorial offices has been published and courses on data protection are being offered by the German Press Council.