A broadcasting freedoms row has deepened in Germany after the administrative board of the public television channel ZDF voted 7-7 not to extend the employment contract of its editor-in-chief.
Calls mounted on Friday for the case of Nikolaus Brender to be taken before Germany's Constitutional Court, which has a post-war record of ruling in favor of press and broadcasting rights. To stay he would have needed nine votes of the 14-member board.
Brender, widely regarded as an independent who expanded ZDF's information content for viewers, had been accused by board member Roland Koch of failing to draw on ZDF's "creative potential" to reverse declining audience quotas.
Koch, premier of the state of Hesse and a senior member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU), is one of six politicians on the board, alongside Kurt Beck, the ZDF's Social Democrat chairman. Beck had wanted Brender's contract extended beyond next March for another five years.
So too had the head of ZDF, Director General Markus Schaechter, who'd recommended Brender. On Friday, Schaechter said he failed to understand why the board had not accepted his suggested compromise of a shortened contract running until 2012, instead of 2015.
Unions see freedoms endangered
Germany's DGB trade union federation and the industrial services union ver.di accused Merkel's CDU of "sacrificing" Germany's constitutionally anchored broadcasting freedoms on what they termed "the altar of party politics."
The journalists' union, the DJV, said the case was a "heavy blow" to constitutionally assured non-interference and independence in public broadcasting.
In the lead-up to Friday's vote, 35 prominent constitutional law professors -- clearly referencing the state of the media in Italy under Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi -- defended Brender in an open letter. "We can very clearly see examples at the moment in other countries in Europe of what happens when the state does not safeguard freedom."
Germany's opposition Green Party said it would seek a one-third vote in the Bundestag parliament in Berlin to bring a legal appeal before Germany's top court in Karlsruhe. The Social Democrats' federal leader Sigmar Gabiel described the ZDF board's vote as a "black day for broadcasting rights in Germany."
Brender: public system incapable of self-cure
Brender, who in the 1980s worked for Germany's ARD public network as a correspondent in South America, said Friday's ZDF board decision illustrated that Germany's public system was not capable of "curing itself" of power politics. The only institution to do that was the Constitutional Court, he concluded.
ZDF was established in 1961 at the height of the Cold War, under the auspices of Germany's regional states, or Laender. It is located in Mainz, which is also the regional capital of Rhineland-Palatinate, where Beck is state premier.
ZDF: broad interest group structure
The boards of public stations across Germany normally comprise a cross-section of communal interest groups, including business associations, trade unions, sports groups and churches. ZDF's administrative board has five appointees from the German states, including Bavaria's conservative ex-premier Edmund Stoiber, plus a federal government representative.
The eight other members of the administrative board are sent by ZDF's larger 77-member broadcasting council, which is responsible for ZDF's program content. This larger council appoints -- or can dismiss -- the director-general only with a three-fifths majority.
Critics say Koch's reservations flawed
Critics responded to Koch's argument that ZDF's audience figures had dwindled by saying that Germany's public broadcasters are supposed to operate independently of quotas, by providing unbiased, reliable information to the public and to minority audience groups.
Christoph Bautz heads a press freedoms campaign group, Campact, which ran an online petition that collected more than 30,000 signatures supporting Brender. Bautz said Brender was forced to go because he was "too inconvenient, a journalist who could not be nailed down into a political camp. This is a disasterous signal for freedom of the press," said Bautz.
"The danger is now that his successor will feel forced to play the game according to the will of politicians so as not to lose his job," Bautz added.
Editor: Darren Mara
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