According to the world press freedom index 2015 of the NGO “reporting without boarders”, Germany is among the freest countries for journalist in the world, coming in at rank 12. Freedom of speech, as well as press freedom, is established as a fundamental right in article 5 of the German Grundgesetz – which is our constitution. Drawing from the experience of the instrumentalization of media during World War II, the constitution prevents the state from owning mass media or interfering into them.
Concerning newspapers and other print media, there is no need to obtain a license to publish. Every person can simply decide to publish a newspaper and do it. The journalistic profession itself does not require any sort of certificate or qualification – basically anybody can call him- or herself a journalist.
But the boundaries of press freedom are not unlimited. Article 5 also protects individual rights or the well-being of the youth according to civil or criminal laws. Wherever individual interests conflict with fundamental rights, each case has to be settled in court individually. German courts tend to uphold press freedom, in particular when it comes to satire and expressions of opinion.
The German Press is self-controlled through the “Presserat”, an institution where the public can complain about press coverage. However, this institution has very little power as it has almost no possibilities to sanction anyone – it is more an upholder of ethical standards. The quality of the press itself shall be regulated by the market and competition, which poses the threat that the press tends to follow market interests.
Broadcasting is a slightly different matter. As it requires huge capital and effort to start a broadcasting channel and frequencies are limited, privately owned broadcasters have to obtain a license from the “Landesmedienanstalt” – a public-corporatist body in each federal state in Germany. These bodies shall ensure a certain “inner pluralism” in each channel’s content. Private channels are obliged to present a diversity of opinions and to respect the “human dignity”. Full programs have to devote a certain amount of their program time to news.
If they do not comply with the conditions, their license might not be renewed.
Licenses for new channels can also be denied if the company behind the new channel has already a combined market share of more than 30% or its cross-media ownership in both the print and broadcasting market would give the company a dominant position in the German media sphere. For example, in 2005, Springer publishing house was denied to take over the second biggest private broadcasting company ProSiebenSat1 AG.
This press-friendly legal framework doesn’t mean everything is perfect for German journalists. Reporters without borders criticize various problems in Germany, e.g. state surveillance and bureaucratic hurdles to obtain official information.