Media under scrutiny over slow response to Cologne attacks

Reporters blame circumstance rather than ideology for delay in covering scale of attacks

One of the 90 women who reported being robbed, threatened or sexually molested at the New Year's celebrations outside Cologne's cathedral recounts her ordeal on German television. Video: Reuters


In the wake of the sexual and physical assaults on scores of women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, a consensus has emerged – in Germany and elsewhere – that the mainstream media actively tried to ignore the attacks because an ideological bias in favour of mass immigration extends to protecting criminal asylum seekers over their victims.

One letter to The Irish Times on Saturday even suggested that the attacks were “ignored for a week by Europe’s powerful liberal-left media class”.

Those claims pack a punch. But are they true?

To answer that, it’s worthwhile examining the reporting timeline starting on New Year’s Eve in Cologne when scores of women were robbed and subjected to physical and sexual assaults by gangs of men.

These shocking claims – the number of complaints has since reached 516 – contrast with a by now notorious police press release from early on January 1st that spoke of “largely peaceful” celebrations in the city.

On New Year’s Day one of the first online posts about attacks on women appeared at 1pm on “Nettwerk Köln”, a Facebook group with about 140,000 members in the city.

The post described “horrific scenes . . . crying women . . . multiple sexual attacks in the crowd”.

Within hours Cologne’s three main newspapers had sought and received police confirmation about those claims and ran their first reports.

On January 2nd, even before Cologne police announced a special group to investigate the claims, local newspapers in the city carried interviews with victims as the number of criminal complaints – from theft to sexual assault – had now reached 40.

By the evening of January 2nd, after a short news wire report by the German press agency DPA, the assaults had found their way into the national newspapers, with longer reports to follow in the coming days.

Social media


And what of the official Facebook and Twitter accounts of the far-right Pegida group? They first mentioned the attacks between 2am and 5am on January 2nd – with links to local media reports.

Hours after being informed of the attacks by the media, Pegida launched a campaign against a supposed media cover-up.

By now the attacks were public knowledge but a key moment in understanding their scale was the afternoon of Monday, January 4th.

At a press conference, Cologne police chief Wolfgang Ebers acknowledged the January 1st police statement had been completely untrue. However, he denied his force was overwhelmed or that they had any knowledge of asylum seekers among the suspects.

He was soon contradicted in those claims – not by social media but by Germany’s mainstream media: Bild and Spiegel Online. On January 5th and 6th they published leaked reports from frustrated police officers on duty.

Those reports revealed the shocking chaos in Cologne that night, distressing details of attacks against women and police battles with the perpetrators, including many asylum seekers.

On Wednesday in Cologne none of the eyewitnesses I interviewed actually saw women being harassed that night – not unusual in chaotic, crowded situations – but all were upset at not being able to prevent the attacks.

Local journalists

Some took longer to respond, they said, because they had only skeleton staffs on January 1st and were still distracted by the terror warning the previous evening in Munich which caused the shutdown of two major train stations.

And when the first attack details came in, German journalists faced a dilemma: a binding press code forbids them from mentioning the religion or ethnic background of a suspect of a crime unless a justification “exists for the understanding of events”.

Given Cologne police denials – first that there had been a problem, and later that asylum seekers were involved – many media organisations erred on the side of caution in describing the perpetrators – too much caution, some say in hindsight.

Amid soul-searching in mainstream media, why does no one one hold Facebook to account? It may have played a role in disseminating news of the Cologne attacks, but it is also the platform of choice for incitement against refugees.

Made-up “foreigner rapists” posts and other xenophobic rants are now so frequent on Facebook that it has agreed to delete offending posts.

Several German groups work daily to investigate and disprove Facebook “foreigner rape” claims, but they cannot work fast enough to prevent the lies being shared in their thousands by the far-right Pegida group and its supporters. That they have struck gold over Cologne has less to do with the rape rate among asylum seekers than the laws of statistical averages.

The horrific Cologne attacks are an opportunity for political debate and for media self-reflection, but not for lessons in morality from populist demagogues.

Anyone who nods in agreement at far-right Pegida chants of “Lügenpresse” – lying press – should be aware of whom they are siding with: odious people whose feigned concern for Cologne victims has been superseded by a new attack term for the perpetrators: “rapefugees”.