The horror of the November 16, 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris had begun to fade when the world was stunned by revelations that German women had been harassed and sexually assaulted on New Year’s Eve in Cologne, reportedly by groups of young Middle Eastern and North African male migrants. The shock was not just the attacks themselves, but that reports of the attacks were suppressed by police and media authorities. This has raised concerns that German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government and the media are colluding to keep relevant information from the German population, and that the media are actively supporting the government’s platform, to the detriment of the truth.
Journalism as a Political Actor
Germany’s Der Spiegel noted that, “In Germany, there is a stable minority that is convinced that the country’s broadcasters, newspapers and magazines are controlled by dark powers and have agreed to suppress bad news about foreigners, so as not to endanger the political project of welcoming refugees.” This view is buttressed in a survey conducted by Allensbach where “41 percent of Germans believe that critical voices are suppressed when it comes to the refugee issue. On the right wing of the political spectrum, that belief has become a certainty.” To give more weight to these allegations, Dr. Wolfgang Herles, former head of the German public broadcaster Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen (ZDF), advised that journalists were instructed to report news that would be to “Ms. Merkel’s liking.” When asked, “if the media landscape had ‘got out of whack,’ he replied: ‘Today, one is not allowed to say anything negative about the refugees.’” Herles further noted that, “this is government journalism and that leads to a situation in which people no longer trust us.”
This reported collusion between news media and the Merkel government was to avoid publishing what occurred in Cologne and elsewhere as it “would stoke the anti-immigrant fears and fuel the far-right agenda.”As information on the Cologne attacks began to seep out due to social media reporting, the German media maintained the position of the reports by police authorities that there had been no major incidents. This all rapidly fell apart, resulting in the firing of Cologne’s police chief Wolfgang Albers who had held back information.
Political observers are concerned with a shift beyond political bias in the German media coverage of the Cologne attacks and the broader immigration crisis. It would appear that the German press has moved from being a balanced dispassionate reporter to one that supports and reflects the government’s positions.Journalists reporting for the public broadcasting networks appear to consider it their “professional duty to serve as a counterweight to the populist rhetoric, fueling the countries right-wing revival.” The media appears to have become a political actor.
Loss of German Support for Merkel
The attacks on New Year’s Eve, as well as revelations of similar episodes in other European cities, triggered the release of a spectrum of emotions that, for many, had been suppressed. As the New York Times reported,
“While the police say the assaults in Cologne were carried out by hundreds of men, even that is a narrow sliver of the more than one million asylum-seekers who entered Europe last year. Still, the anxieties provoked by the Cologne attacks quickly spread as reports emerged of similar New Year’s Eve assaults in other German cities, as well as in Finland and Austria.
While the details and some of those reports are sketchy, and none approach what happened in Cologne, they have touched an exceptionally raw nerve as European societies face the challenge of integrating and acculturating, the asylum-seekers, most of them Muslims, and a majority of those single men.”
The details of these incidents are still limited, and none of the attacks appear to approach what happened in Cologne. Nevertheless, the notion of formed migrant gangs who, according to witness reports, humiliated, robbed and sexually assaulted women in a believed-to-be secure city square and train station, is a political nightmare, which some felt was inevitable. In one evening, Merkel’s often reported mantra of “we can do it,” was no longer in vogue.The events of New Year’s Eve brought to the fore concerns relating to accepting a tsunami wave of refugees with a lack of government control, without the prerequisite security screening and health checks required by immigrants elsewhere, and indeed overall government inaction.
The attacks in Cologne also brought to light concerns from conservative elements in Germany regarding the exponential increase of problems with such a rapid influx of so many migrants, and the impact this would have on the overall migration program in Germany. Der Spiegal noted that conservatives believe that, “too many foreigners in the country bring too many problems along with them. For the others, that which happened (in Cologne, on New Year’s Eve) is what they have been afraid of from the very beginning: that ugly images of ugly behaviour by migrants would endanger what has been a generally positive mood in Germany with respect to the refugees.”
German feminist Alice Schwarzer reflected that many Germans saw the events in Cologne “as proof that sexual violence is an important problem—a result of failed immigration.” That the Cologne police investigations discovered a number of the mobile phones stolen from women on New Year’s Eve were subsequently traced to refugee shelters, would support the claim by Schwarzer.
Germany’s Migration Policy Must Change
The attacks in Cologne and the subsequent attempts to cover them up have changed the dynamics of German politics and the debate over refugees, not only in Germany but in Europe. Merkel and her supporters will likely find it difficult to continue their open arms approach to the ongoing migrant crisis. There are concerns over the lack of government control, the financial cost of assimilating immigrants and the social fabric cost of failed assimilation. The American Secretary of State John Kerry echoed the concerns of many, warning “that the mass influx into Europe ‘spells a ‘near existential threat’ to the continent.”
The Merkel government is seen as not fully appreciating the potential concerns regarding this influx or the rising costs of supporting so many migrants, as well as the costs of assimilation. The Munich-based think tank Ifo Institute for Economic Research reported in November that the cost of hosting refugees may be higher than previously anticipated. Ifo reported that in 2015, the estimated cost was €21.1 billion to “include accommodation, food, nurseries, schools, German classes, training and administration.” Initial costs were estimated at €10 billion for the first year, which covered the accommodation and feeding for 800,000 migrants. A more recent study by the Cologne-based German Economic Institution put the cost to Germany’s refugee crisis at €38 billion and rising. This accounts for projected feeding, housing and educating the over 1,000,000 immigrants.
The attacks in Cologne and elsewhere demonstrate the need for Germany and other European countries to ensure effective social programs to assist refugees in assimilating into their new homes. Over two thirds of the refugees are young men, with many lacking the education or language skills necessary for employment in the highly skilled German job market. They are contending with a cultural reality that is foreign to them, and are coming from societies where women are deemed inferior and non-Muslims are not viewed positively. Sweden, which has taken in the most Muslims per capita in Europe, has witnessed a sexual assault rate that has skyrocketed. A high number of those convicted of such crimes are immigrants or children of immigrants, underlining a serious failure in socio-cultural integration.
Withdrawing the Welcome Carpet
The initial Willkommenskultur appears to have evaporated as Germans grapple with the spectrum of challenges of absorbing hundreds of thousands of migrants in a short period of time.  This provides fodder for anti-immigrant political parties, while psychologically dislocating the Germans who initially supported the arrival of the migrants.
A message is being sent to Merkel’s government that the German people have lost confidence in her ability to maintain the security of German’s cities. Merkel needs to address the German people’s expectations of immigrants, and the need for them to assimilate and obey the laws. German citizens have run out of patience and see the events in Cologne as confirmation of their deepest concerns that effectively assimilating mass numbers of migrants is unachievable, particularly considering the German track record with immigrants. There is a dawning realization that bringing in seemingly endless numbers of uncontrolled migrants to Germany must cease.