We need dialogue

When times are tough, the exchange of ideas and perspectives becomes especially important. It takes dialogue. And at Deutsche Welle, we need distributors and cooperative partners for that – now more than ever. By Peter Limbourg

Essay by Peter Limbourg

As Germany’s international broadcaster, Deutsche Welle’s core mission is to bring independent, reliable information to people worldwide and to promote dialogue and understanding. We advocate for human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Demanding media freedom is also part of our DNA – and it applies to all of the 32 languages we offer, to our journalistic output and to the work of our DW Akademie.  

It's a question of human dignity – worldwide. Anchored in Article 1 of the German constitution, it is the benchmark by which our every decision and action is measured. Protecting universal human rights, upholding democracy and strengthening international law are the things we strive for. Everywhere, and at all times.

This is no easy task at the moment. Do we still understand the world? Can this world still be understood? And do we understand one another? Fast, modern communications were supposed to turn the international community into a global village with a media marketplace – so we hoped for a long time. Instead, the international community has lost its sense of togetherness. Nationalist and even imperialist thinking is on the rise. Instead of multilateralism and co-operation, what we are seeing is an increasing tendency towards isolation.

Dialogue as mandate

As an organisation, Deutsche Welle seeks dialogue – and we want to reaffirm that aim, both within and beyond the Middle East. And that includes our conversations with distributors and cooperative partners.

We are all affected by isolation and a dwindling capacity for dialogue globally. As a transnational actor with global responsibility and outlook, Deutsche Welle has experienced the consequences of political upheaval firsthand and, in some cases, the blunt refusals to engage in dialogue. Freedom of information has been substantially curtailed in many countries, to an extent that goes far beyond the term "restrictions": after the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, after Deutsche Welle was banned in Russia, after the Russian attack on Ukraine, our concerns have always been for the safety and sometimes for the sheer survival of our colleagues who are working in these places.

Jaafar Abdul-Karim's DW programme "Jaafartalk" (formerly "Shababtalk") also broadcast an episode from the ruins of Mosul in Iraq in May 2018 (photo: DW)
Jaafar Abdul-Karim's DW programme "Jaafartalk" (formerly "Shababtalk") broadcast an episode from the ruins of Mosul in Iraq in May 2018. "Jaafartalk" tackles issues that national broadcasters shy away from. "We want to expose people to the diversity in the region, whether it is diverse people, opinions, political positions or lifestyles. We believe that diversity stimulates dialogue," Abdul-Karim emphasises

The war in Ukraine – and the millions of people who have fled the country – sparked a debate on whether Europe is viewing these refugees and exiles differently from those who arrived from Syria in 2015/2016. Some accuse the West of having more empathy for the Ukrainians than for the Syrians, for reasons of latent Islamophobia. That may be true in individual cases. But it doesn’t apply to Germany’s policy on refugees. For one thing, in 2015/2016 Germany took in more than a million refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and other countries. For another, it is completely normal to have a different perception of conflicts in different regions.

For the first time in around 60 years – since the Cuban missile crisis – the Russian attack on Ukraine and the aggressor’s disregard for human rights have made people in Europe afraid that they might soon be caught up in a war. It therefore follows that they are paying close attention to the fates of those affected. Syria’s immediate neighbours – countries like Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan – took a similar attitude following the outbreak of the Syrian civil war. There, too, people and governments showed an exemplary willingness to help.

Misanthropy against certain groups is a poison of our age

Another example of the way our perception of conflicts differs from one region to another can be seen in the confrontation between Israelis and Palestinians.

In Germany, we see the suffering of the Palestinians – but we also understand the Israelis’ fear of terrorism and rocket attacks. In Germany, we have a permanent, non-negotiable obligation to take a firm stance against anti-Semitism. The crimes against humanity committed during the Holocaust, the murder of millions of European Jews, were initiated, planned and carried out by Germans. It stands as a warning to the world. At Deutsche Welle, opposing any denial or minimisation of the Holocaust, and advocating for Israel’s right to exist, is at the core of who we are as an organisation.

We therefore take a firm stance against anti-Semitism, against the hatred of Jews. People may not be attacked or imprisoned simply for belonging to the Jewish faith. Misanthropy against groups is a poison of our age. Anti-Semitism takes away people’s right to live with dignity. Like racism and structural discrimination, it constitutes a threat to any free society – and today, that also means our global society.

Our determination does not, however, mean that Deutsche Welle journalism will never criticise Israeli policies. There can be no justification for the actions taken by Israeli security forces during the funeral procession with the coffin of Shireen Abu Akleh, the journalist who was shot dead. That upsetting incident attracted clear criticism in Germany, too. Both this and the circumstances of her death must be investigated.

Critical analysis of political events – in Germany and worldwide, including Israel – is the hallmark of serious, non-partisan and competent journalism. It is clear that not every criticism of the Israeli government is anti-Semitic. As an organisation, this is something that we at Deutsche Welle want to communicate to our distribution and cooperative partners.

Peter Limbourg during a discussion at the DLD Tel Aviv Innovation Festival 2017 (photo: DW)
"In the face of growing fragmentation and inequalities, journalistic cooperation requires more exchange, more plurality, more open discussion and more understanding. Democracies are built on critical public communication and dialogue," writes Peter Limbourg in his essay

Same standards for all

Israel must accept criticism of its social and political developments from the media just as every other country does. But it is also true that Israel and Israeli policies have the same right to be treated fairly by the media, as any other country does. The benchmarks are the same. There can be no place for irrational assumptions here.

From this critical position, we at Deutsche Welle examine any allegation of anti-Semitism and hatred of Israel responsibly and self-critically. Unfortunately, in 2021 we had cause to do just this. In an external auditor’s report, independent assessors pointed to some isolated errors and weaknesses at Deutsche Welle. We took this report seriously and are working on its recommendations. We have published the report, and have been open in our communications about it. We are consciously promoting an atmosphere of open exchange on the subject. 

Deutsche Welle speaks out with absolute clarity against hate speech in any form. Our colleagues have to accept that they will be judged by the same standards. It doesn’t matter whom the hatred is directed against. We do not tolerate hatred of religions, states or groups of people. That applies equally to everyone. Following the accusations made against Deutsche Welle, we have set out our system of values more precisely, and made ethical and journalistic standards for our employees more specific. For our international partners, we have developed an agreement based on universal values. We will enter into dialogue with them about our "DW Declaration of Values", which will allow us to move forward together.

The Middle East remains a key region for Europe. Ten years ago, we watched with respect and admiration as people took to the streets in the "Arab Spring" and risked their lives for humane treatment and democratic reforms. At that time, we expanded our focus and our reporting considerably to document the Arab democratic movements. The Arabic television schedule became a core part of our portfolio. We greatly increased our Arabic language online and social media presence. The DW Akademie is present in numerous countries across the region, where it bolsters new, young media formats.

More tolerance, open-mindedness and understanding

Many of our distributors and cooperative partners advocate for tolerance, open-mindedness and understanding, just as Deutsche Welle does. This is something that connects us. We know some of our partners sometimes get into difficulties just for maintaining business relationships with us. They can find themselves on the receiving end of vilification, resentment and repression. Their willingness to stand up for our shared values – such as women’s rights, the right to sexual autonomy and freedom of religion and thought – is something we value very highly. If it has ever seemed that this connection no longer existed, that impression is false and we regret it. We also regret that, in the wake of the anti-Semitism allegations against Deutsche Welle at the end of 2021, some of DW Akademie’s distributors and partners were subject to unfounded suspicions and have been placed under substantial pressure. We will now make efforts to intensify our dialogue with them in particular.

In the face of growing fragmentation and inequalities, journalistic cooperation requires more exchange, more plurality, more open discussion and more understanding. Democracies are built on critical public communication and dialogue.

The distortions that occurred during former U.S. President Donald Trump's term of office and the extent of totalitarian conformity in Vladimir Putin's Russia show the excesses that threaten when dialogue is denied.

We therefore intend to re-double our efforts when it comes to dialogue. And we are inviting people to engage: during real-life and digital meetings, using the many opportunities afforded by the Global Media Forum hosted by Deutsche Welle in Bonn on 20 and 21 June.

Cooperation with our partners in the Arab world has made Deutsche Welle better. We are certain that without this cooperation, we would not have such a good understanding of the people in this incredibly significant region of the globe. We want our mutual understanding to continue to grow.

Peter Limbourg 

© Qantara.de 2022

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin

Peter Limbourg is Director General of Deutsche Welle.