German State Broadcaster Fires Seven Arab Journalists in Supposed Antisemitism Purge

Some may be suing for racial discrimination.

by Rivkah Brown

16 February 2022

Peter Limbourg (Director General, Deutsche Welle, Germany) and Salil Shetty (Secretary General, Amnesty International) pictured at the Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum 2017
Deutsche Welle director general Peter Limbourg poses with former Amnesty International secretary general Salil Shetty in 2017 (K. Danetzki/Deutsche Welle)

Germany’s state broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW) has fired seven Arab journalists, four of them Palestinian, in the wake of an investigation into antisemitism.

Journalists working across multiple divisions of DW told Novara Media that the firings formalise an unspoken rule within the organisation: don’t criticise Israel.

Contacted by Novara Media, a Deutsche Welle spokesperson declined to comment.

The seven journalists – all of whom work in DW’s Arabic service, some for almost two decades – have had their contracts terminated with immediate effect in the days following the broadcaster’s publication of the findings of its two-month antisemitism investigation.

On Monday 7 February, hours before the antisemitism report was published, five journalists were notified of their dismissal: Palestinians Farah Maraqa and Maram Salem; Daoud Ibrahim and Bassel al-Aridi, who are Lebanese; and Syrian Morhaf Mahmoud.

A week later, on Monday 14 February, a further two journalists were fired: Palestinians Yasser Abumuailek and Zahi Alawi. Later that evening Mohamed Ibrahim, head of news in the Arabic division, resigned.

A number of the terminated journalists are currently considering legal action against their former employer, possibly on the grounds of racial discrimination.

Maraqa, Salem, Ibrahim, al-Aridi and Mamoud were originally suspended on 1 December, the day after the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) published an article claiming the journalists had previously adopted “anti-Semitic or anti-Israeli positions”. Soon afterwards, VICE Germany published two investigations of its own on DW’s “anti-Semitism scandal”, claiming DW’s work with Jordanian and Lebanese partners “promotes hatred of Israel”.

Despite dubious evidence for these claims – a number of the offending remarks included in the SZ report, for example, were taken out of context, as a DW spokesperson pointed out at the time – it nevertheless prompted the broadcaster to commission an independent investigation into antisemitism within its ranks.

The investigation – conducted by German justice minister Sabine Leuthauser Schanberger in conjunction with counter-terrorism experts Beatrice and her husband Ahmad Mansour, who is a Palestinian citizen of Israel – concluded that DW was not institutionally guilty of antisemitism, but that five unnamed employees were. The investigators – who did not respond to Novara Media’s requests for comment – also placed a further eight journalists under investigation.

Though nominally about the broadcaster’s treatment of Jewish people, the 56-page report looks almost exclusively at coverage of Israel-Palestine.

The report evaluated a number of statements made by DW employees and affiliates against the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism, endorsed in 2017 by the German state despite widespread criticism of its use to silence critics of Israel.

The report also makes a number of contentious claims about the conflict, such as that “[t]he riots referred to as “protests” [at the Gaza-Israel border] are actions organised by the state”, and that “classifying terror by Fatah or Hamas not as an obstacle to peace but as a “political struggle” does not inform the audience correctly.”

While some of the fired journalists boycotted the investigation, others collaborated, though it is not clear that this has done them any good: one journalist told Novara Media that none of the context they had provided to investigators was reflected in the report, whose purpose they felt was to corroborate a foregone conclusion.

The report ends with a series of recommendations for DW, including trips to Israel for editorial staff Middle East department – an offer that a number of staff, being citizens of countries that are technically at war with Israel, would be unable to take up – as well as centering antisemitism in the department’s output.

Speaking to Novara Media on condition of anonymity, one DW journalist working in English said that the seven terminations reflect DW’s increasingly hard line on Israel-Palestine.

This stance, they say, is hardly surprising for a state broadcaster that sees its mission as representing to the world the German state and its values, among them Germany’s “special responsibility” to Israel as a result of the Holocaust (though with a population of up 100,000, around a quarter of them in Berlin, Germany is also host to one of the largest Palestinian communities outside of the Middle East).

However, they add, the institutional fear of speaking out against Israel has intensified in recent months, particularly after one viral interview.

In May 2021, DW’s English language division interviewed Electronic Intifada journalist Alu Abunimah. In that interview, Abunimah said that “Palestinians are sick of paying the price for guilty German consciences.”

The interview prompted an internal crisis at the broadcaster, which issued a public apology and a set of internal reporting guidelines, banning its journalists from describing Israel as an “apartheid” – a description affirmed by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem – and advising against the term “colonialism”.

This extreme sensitivity to pro-Palestinian sentiment is by no means exclusive to DW. In November 2021, German public broadcaster Westdeutscher Rundfunk ended its partnership with Palestinian-Lebanese journalist Nemi El-Hassan, two months after a pro-Israel tabloid broke a story showing El-Hassan at a 2014 pro-Palestinian march wearing a hijab and keffiyeh, followed by another indicating that El-Hassan had liked Instagram posts by Jewish Voice for Peace, a pro-Palestine activist group based in the US.

Despite profuse apologies, as well as evidence that the scoop may have come from far-right sources, El-Hassan – noted for her work on exposing neo-Nazism – was hounded in the national media, which speculated that she might be an Islamist.

This extreme response to journalists perceived as excessively pro-Palestine has, according to a number of DW journalists, created a culture of fear in German media and its allies.

One of the terminated DW journalists told Novara Media that they had been “treated like a virus” by colleagues since news broke of their dismissal (though they and their six terminated colleagues have received solidarity from hundreds of Palestinian journalists). Another told Novara that the ver.di union, which has vocally opposed other terminations at DW, has been silent about theirs.

Deutsche Welle prides itself on its commitment to free speech, so much so that in 2015, the organisation established the DW Freedom of Speech Award. Yet for one of the terminated journalists, this move eviscerates DW’s credibility: “Now [DW] is not allowed to preach about democracy or freedom of speech in the Arabic world.”

Yet these journalists do not intend to be silenced. At least one is already working with the European Legal Support Centre (ELSC), an organisation that offers legal support to advocates for Palestinian rights across the continent, to challenge their termination.

ELSC believes there may be both individual cases to be brought against the DW terminations, as well as a possible case against the independent investigation that precipitated them. If successful, these cases would join a catalogue of others defying Germany’s legislative crackdown on pro-Palestinian sentiment: in January, Leipzig became the seventh regional court to challenge one of the many anti-BDS resolutions passed by German cities and institutions.

Rivkah Brown is a commissioning editor and reporter at Novara Media.

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