At Social Science Works we seek to engage with contemporary political debate and offer solutions to its most pressing problems by applying social scientific thought. In this blog, co-founder Sarah Coughlan and Niklas Kossow explore the media fallout from the Cologne attacks.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Berlin Logs.

A few days into the New Year, news started to spread that Cologne, Germany’s fourth largest city, had been the scene of some frightening and large-scale crime on New Year’s Eve.  It is reported that a large group of men of ‘African and Arabic origin’ gathered in the crowd surrounding the main station in the late evening on New Year’s Eve. Soon after midnight, the scene escalated. Following that night and in the time afterwards, over 1,000 criminal incidences reported, many of them including sexual assault. Here we must acknowledge that increasingly it is becoming clear that those involved were from Algeria, Moroco and Tunisia, rather than more recent migrants from Syria, who have been conflated in the media’s discussion of events. This conflation, and in some instances false reporting, is further evidence of the failure of the media to accurately report on issues of immigration and refugees.

The defining element of these events, for several weeks after the attacks, was that information was confused, unclear and often wrong. Sources reported a crowd of ‘up to 1000 men,’ while it is not clear how many of them were involved in the incidences. Newspapers now say that around 40% of reported crimes might involve sexual assault, including at least two cases of rape, correcting earlier reports that said that only a quarter of all reported incidences included sexual assault. Similar incidences were reported in Stuttgart, Hamburg and Berlin, while apparently on a much smaller scale and apparently unconnected to what happened in Cologne. Some parts of the media reported yesterday that a copy-cat attack took place in Hessen’s Darmstadt.

We should make clear that our sympathies are unreservedly with the women attacked on New Year’s Eve in Cologne. Those responsible have to be caught and dealt with appropriately, and with the same even-handedness a citizen should expect (the talk of deportation, for example, is extraordinarily dangerous). However, it is worth looking at the media storm that is currently brewing around these terrible events. While the events in Cologne and the reaction of the local police force are evidently messy, as their communication strategy has been in the days following the events. Complaints were made that it took over three days for the news to make it into national media. The word censorship was even used. This is linked to an early press release on 1 January, in which Cologne police called the NYE night peaceful and relatively uneventful. Yet, local media already reported on the events later that day.

While censorship might be an overstatement, the reluctance of the authorities to release details on the incidences seems understandable given the reaction that followed the reports. Germany is home to a political climate in which incidences like these are used to incite fear and hatred against members of non-white ethnicities. Was it necessary to describe the estimated 1000 men that crowded around the main station as men of ‘African and Arabic origin’? Or would omitting it be censorship? While no-one should doubt the eye-witness accounts of those present, there are hints that the events are being used to stoke racist fear above all else. Those following the hashtag #koelnhbf on Twitter will see users making a consistent link between the perpetrators’ alleged ethnicities, and many counts of linking the events to the recent influx of refugees. Even Vice-Chancellor and SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel publicly suggests the introduction of an obligation for all refugees to remain at one residence in Germany – not to mention the rhetoric already used by more Conservative or right-wing populist politicians.

While this isn’t exactly a new phenomenon (the media has a tendency to mention the ethnicity of all non-white criminals), in the contemporary German context this kind of sloppy reporting should be treated with extreme caution. Almost 1.1 million refugees came to Germany in 2015, most of them from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. The majority of Germans have greeted these refugees in a largely welcoming manner, but underneath the blanket of hospitality, a storm of hatred against the newcomers has been brewing. The events in Cologne are now fuelling the prejudices that right-wing populists have been screaming on the squares of Dresden, Leipzig and Erfurt for the better part of the last year and a half. The image of the blood-thirsty Arab man who has no respect for women can today be found even in some German broadsheets, as commentators debate whether these attacks should be linked to the supposed lack of enlightenment in the Muslim world.

This point, however, is nonsense. While the appalling assaults in Cologne are being painted as exceptional, an aberration in normal function in German society, it is vital to remember that this is not the only serious incidence of large-scale sexual assaults around festive periods in Germany. During the Oktoberfest, around ten cases of rape are reported to the police each year, with some people estimating up to 200 unreported cases. These figures are likely a massive underestimation and do not take into account incidences of non-rape sexual assault. The discrepancy in coverage is telling. It is vital to acknowledge that sexual assaults at Oktoberfest (or Karneval, in the case of Cologne) can apparently be dismissed in the media as the natural consequences of drunkenness and Dirndls, similar events with criminals with different ethnic backgrounds are considered a reflection on their culture, religion and their otherness. While the debate in Germany focuses on the origin of the perpetrators, too few are talking about the general problem of sexual assault being an issue for women (and men) in Germany every day and especially in large, festive crowds. This failure in the debate is hugely damaging.

A healthy debate would enable all parts of German society to look seriously at these kinds of core issues in a rational and objective manner. Further, it would enable newcomers to trace the history of German society and understand its aspirations without presuming that other cultures do not share these values. With some unpleasant reflection we would come to realise that no refugee could import sexual assault culture into our society as parts of the media would imply – it has long been a part of it. In a healthy discussion of values, refugees and German citizens alike would be able to reflect on the kind of society they want to build together. This kind of discussion requires facilitation and direction in an environment that fosters intercultural exchange and coherent, logical thought.

The reaction of many of those that have been vocal in support of refugees arriving in Germany is to deny that there is a connection between the cultural backgrounds of some refugees and problematic ideas about gender, rights, and particularly, women. This response is counter-productive insofar as it stifles debate and discussion. The biggest obstacle here is not supposed insurmountable divergences in cultural ideas or irreconcilable social differences, instead the biggest obstacle is the failure of debate to engage in a nuanced way with people from different cultures.

German society needs to be more open in its discussion of the unfolding refugee situation, therefore. There needs to be an ongoing discussion about how to help integrate those coming to Germany and other places into their new societies and a deep discussion about the kind of society we want and how the newcomers can play a positive role in shaping that. This is not a matter of assimilating newcomers so that no differences remain, but a continual process of navigating stumbling blocks between groups – it needs to be an on-going discussion. The point remains however that we cannot allow this to dictate our perception of those who seek refuge from some of the most violent parts of the world, even if one or several refugees were involved in the attacks. Yes, we need to discuss how to integrate newcomers into our societies. But equally, we should look at the issues we already have here. The generalisations about North African and Arab men are one issue, how often we simply accept sexual assault is another. From this starting point, we can begin to see that the issues here are thorny and difficult, and that it is our duty to untangle them together.


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