A scandal about German police officers obstructing a TV crew at a far-right rally has escalated after it emerged that the protester at the centre of the dispute was an off-duty police staff, raising further concerns about entrenched right-wing sympathies among the police and attacks on press freedom.
Authorities in Saxony confirmed on Wednesday that the police employee had attended a march by anti-Islam and anti-migrant group PEGIDA in the state capital, Dresden, on August 18 and had reported journalists covering the rally to police who detained them for 45 minutes.
Video footage showed a well-built man in sunglasses and a hat in the colours of the German flag confronting the crew working for public broadcaster ZDF, waving his hands at the camera, telling them not to film and reporting them to the police.
The ZDF reporter, Arndt Ginzel, accused police of effectively acting as the “executive” arm of PEGIDA.
The incident took place at a rally against a visit to Dresden by German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
But Merkel’s conservatives also faced accusations of ignoring the rise of far-right groups in Saxony, after state premier Michael Kretschmer, a senior member of the chancellor’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), appeared to defend the police action, writing on Twitter: “The only people who come across seriously in this video are policemen.”
A deputy leader of the Social Democrats (SPD), who share power with the CDU in the federal German government, accused Merkel’s party of complacency about the growth of the far-right.
“The CDU in Saxony has for decades denied or trivialised right-wing radical movements and violence,” Ralf Stegner told Handelsblatt daily.
It has “allowed right-wing thinking in Saxony not only to go unchallenged but also to be acceptable”, he said.
German Justice Minister Katarina Barley, also from the SPD, said the events were “very worrying” and had to be quickly and comprehensively cleared up.
“Press freedom is an important part of our society and our constitution,” she said.
Kretschmer has since said he is a convinced defender of a free press and Die Welt newspaper quoted him on Thursday as saying, “I am intent on assessing the situation calmly and in a factual manner.”
Cornelia Hass, chief executive of the DJV union representing journalists, urged Germany’s federal and state security officials to review the way police are trained in their dealings with reporters.
“Safeguarding press freedom needs to be a major element in the training of security forces,” she said.
Journalists covering demonstrations by PEGIDA are regularly spat at, verbally abused and threatened by protesters with little police intervention.
Rise of the far right
Merkel’s decision in 2015 to let in about one million refugees and migrants, many fleeing wars in the Middle East, has fuelled support for far-right groups such as PEGIDA and the Alternative for Germany (AfD), now the main opposition party in parliament.
Saxony, the cradle of the PEGIDA movement, is a stronghold for far-right sentiment. In last year’s federal election, the AfD was the strongest party in the state, pushing Merkel’s CDU into second place.
Kretschmer, who has criticised Merkel’s migration policy, faces a tough challenge in next year’s state election to hold Saxony for the CDU.
Neo-Nazis have a strong tradition in Saxony, especially in Dresden, where they gather every year on February 13 to mark the Allied firebombing of the city in World War II which killed 25,000 people and destroyed its baroque architecture.
Asked by broadcaster NDR about the off-duty police employee taking part in a PEGIDA rally, a Saxony police spokesman did not deny there might be supporters of the group in police ranks.
“The police is a cross-section of society. We have all political views,” he said.