Conspiracy or transparency: the role of the media in the Cologne attacks

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Image courtesy of Independent.co.uk

We all like to believe that there is somebody out there that cares for each of us. The need to belong and to feel safe and loved is so integral to human nature that it becomes almost overlooked in the anarchy of today’s modern world. But a common thread fundamentally uniting the globe is the need to feel connected, the need to feel safe and secure in the world. Somehow, our silence in the wake of the Cologne attacks on New Year’s Eve jeopardised that common thread.

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There’s a scream. The feminine scream sends shivers down your spine. The piercing noise is filled with fear and shatters your otherwise distracted thoughts. You turn to see a woman trembling and trying to writhe away from a man who is attempting to force himself upon her. Nobody deserves to be stripped of their privacy and comfort in such a crude, callous manner. In such a situation, it is fairly effortless to come to a quick moral decision on what is right and what is wrong. In this instance we gain our information in the moment; information obtained, processed and action undertaken.

Now imagine that we didn’t see the event unfolding. A haze of misinformation descends and we become unaware of all that has occurred. The media, quite literally, acts as the medium allowing us to see through the haze that forms around events and happenings across the world. It permits us the opportunity to understand things that are beyond the limitations of our immediate surroundings. It has control over the fibres of that common global thread.

“Censorship on any level disrupts the medium that allows a certain transparency in events such as these to heighten awareness in society and to evoke empathy.”

On New Year’s Eve, the situation described above happened en masse at a train station in Cologne, Germany. According to witnesses, a throng of approximately 1,000 drunk, aggressive North African and Arab men ranging between the ages of 15 and 35 years old congregated outside the station. It wasn’t long before they swarmed through the crowd, committing crimes from sexual assault to robbery. Over 120 cases of assault were reported on the night and were initially disregarded in the preliminary police report as released on New Year’s Day. Despite the controversy over the media response that erupted globally in the subsequent days, the spotlight was left dangling over the German police authorities and their unusual response to such an event. The buoyant report released on the 1st of January spoke highly of the festivities and the lively atmosphere. The sinister happenings went untold.

The news of the attacks broke over social media instead, with the wildfire starting in a Facebook group named “Nettwork Köln” with over 140,000 members ranging across Cologne. The post published at 1pm on New Year’s Day chronicled “horrific scenes [of] crying women” and “multiple sex attacks in the crowd.” The post was later removed. Social media became heavily censored. A Member of Parliament in the Austrian Freedom Party, Gernot Darmann said that his attempts to release information about the attacks on his Facebook page were repeatedly removed and deleted.

From here, it escalated with local news networks starting to catch wind of the events and beginning to write the scripts for a controversial story which would add fuel to the fire as Europe tackled the seemingly incessant immigrant crisis. It took until the 5th January for either the BBC in London or the New York Times to report on the attacks at all. Former Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich alluded to the media conspiracy stating that it is a “scandal that it took days for the public media to take up the reports. Journalists are operating a cartel of silence and lockdown of news.”

In the media’s defence, the local journalists in the area may not have been equipped to tackle such a crime at this particular time. Many radio stations had a severe shortage of staff over the New Year while others were distracted by the threats of Islamic State attacks in two major train stations in Munich. Perhaps a rapid response to the news just wasn’t feasible for the night that was in it. However, what remains unclear is what occurred in the following days; even after the police were forced to release a more accurate report, the media still failed to disclose the full extent of the train station attacks. Details were left ambiguous and with no medium to see through the haze, the world was left in silence; a silence that could be mistaken for apathy.

A far-right group known as Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident) have been known to spread hate and make xenophobic threats against the influx of Muslim immigrants to Germany. As a result, Facebook and the media have been desperately trying to censor the information released as groups such as these imperil the lives of the refugees. It is believed that the source of the conspiracy theories against the media lies within this group. Perhaps it is difficult to place blame on the mass media for struggling to differentiate between lies and truth.

The media and the police force in Cologne concluded on one answer to a perennial, moral question. The question was one that challenges the public on more than one level. To protect the reputation of the boats of shivering men, women and children desperately attempting to escape their war-torn homes or stand in alliance with human and, in particular, women’s rights? Justice weighs a hand on each side of the scales and the media was placed in a precarious position at the fulcrum.

There is a fine line between a just media and propaganda. Censorship on any level disrupts the medium that allows a certain transparency in events such as these to heighten awareness in society and to evoke empathy through that common thread. The lack of media coverage and reporting on the Cologne attacks, for whatever reason, jeopardised the common thread across the globe. Our inherent need to feel safe, secure and connected as global citizens became frayed at the tips. We may wash our hands and point the blame at the police and the media but it is difficult to claim innocence. Intentional or not, the media failed to provide us with the material necessary for Europe to take action. In the wake of the horrific assaults, we are left with a job to do. We have to seek to repair the thread of safety and security for all people, women and refugees alike. We failed to demand transparency. Now, we seek to blame conspiracy.

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