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German media as well as police underreport migrant crime

The German Sächsische Zeitung, based in the eastern city of Dresden has adopted a policy of reporting migrant crime. Since July of last year, its policy is to always report the nationality of people who commit crimes.

Published: April 2, 2017, 11:51 am

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    This was prompted by a reader survey carried out by communication scientist Lutz Hagen. He said that almost half of those surveyed thought that journalists had been ordered to leave out the ethnicity of criminals because of the current migration crisis.

    Another survey is due to be conducted in a year’s time. Hagen’s hypothesis is that reporting about the nationality of criminals will result in readers’ being better able to more accurately assess the share of crimes committed by foreigners, expressing the hope that such crime would eventually be lower than expected.

    The experiment could also have negative consequences, warned Georg Ruhrmann, an expert on the portrayal of migrants in the media. “Depending on the attitudes and routines of individual journalists, you could see more stereotypes or discriminatory statements filtering through,” he said. It could appeal to readers who hold “racist or anti-immigrant views”.

    Last month the German Press Council — a voluntary, industry-run body — concluded that ethnicity could not be published “unless there is a justified public interest in doing so”. Journalists and the “Lügenpresse” (lying press) have however felt the pressure of the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party.

    The new wording replaces previous guidelines that said such details should only be published if there was a link between a person’s ethnicity or religion and the crime. But withholding such information left readers suspecting the media of covering up migrant crimes.

    The thefts and mass sexual assaults of women during the 2015/16 New Year’s Eve festivities in Cologne were eventually young men of “North African or Arab descent” after the media deliberately avoided any mention of the crimes or ethnicity, citing “professional ethical guidelines”.

    A recent study by the University of Munich showed that several weeks after New Year’s Eve, newspapers tended to mention the ethnicity of perpetrators much more than they did previously, because they were caught in a cover-up.

    But the new media guidelines on migrant crime, might not be enough, because the actual number of migrant-related sex crimes in Germany is at least two or three times higher than the official number.

    Only 10 percent of the sex crimes committed in Germany appear in the official statistics, says André Schulz, head of the Criminal Police Association. Strangely accurate statistics are notoriously non-existent in one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world.

    According to Federal Criminal Police Office (Bundeskriminalamt, BKA) data includes only crimes that have been solved (aufgeklärten Straftaten). According to police statistics, on average only around half of all crimes committed in Germany in any given year are solved (Aufklärungsquote).

    Moreover, BKA crime statistics do not include data from North Rhine-Westphalia, the most populous state in Germany and the one with the largest number of migrants, or from Hamburg, the second-largest city in the country.

    An even more toxic practice is for police deliberately to omit any references to migrants in crime reports. This lapse makes it impossible for the media and therefore German citizens to understand the true scale of migrant crime.

    Germany’s sclerotic justice system exacerbates the problem by imposing seemingly interminable delays of several months in bringing migrant perpetrators to justice. In all police files from January 2017, migrants have no stated ethnicity, but are either called “dark-skinned” or “southern looking”.

    In a recent note for media editors by police it was stated: “The legal basis for publishing the surveillance photos has been dispensed with. We strongly urge you to take this into account in future reporting and to remove and/or make changes to existing publications.”

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