German pubcaster ignites controversy

ZDF's board ousts jouno in press row

BERLIN — A move by Germany’s ruling conservatives to oust a top news exec at pubcaster ZDF has sparked a fierce debate over press freedom and the independence of publicly funded television — sensitive subjects in a country still haunted by the abuse of state-run media under Nazi and Communist dictatorships.

For the past year, reps of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU alliance have sought to block the reappointment of ZDF’s top news producer and editor-in-chief Nikolaus Brender despite his strong backing from the pubcaster’s director general Markus Schaechter. Last week they succeeded. Brender’s contract won’t be extended when it expires in March.

ZDF’s 14-seat administrative board includes state representatives, a majority of which are members of the conservative CDU and CSU parties.

Brender, who has headed news at ZDF since 2000, is widely respected for his independence. In 2005 he awed TV auds by standing up to then-Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and his accusations of ZDF’s political bias against his party during parliamentary elections.

Roland Koch, state premier of Hesse, led the push to oust Brender, pointing out that some of the pubcaster’s news and information shows had lost viewership since 2002.

Critics and opposition politicos see a thinly veiled grab for control over one of Germany’s two national pubcasters.

Opposition leaders from the center-left SPD and Green Party described the decision as “a black day for broadcast freedom in Germany” and accused the CDU of an attempted coup at ZDF. The Greens have announced plans to take the case to Germany’s Constitutional Court in an effort to stop Brender’s ouster.

A group of journalists has filed separate complaints with the EU Commission and the Council of Europe asking that they do everything in their power to guarantee that all member states respect the European Charter on Freedom of the Press.

Guenther Jauch, a popular TV journalist and host of RTL’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” said, “In the end, Brender was axed because of his independence. That’s why I don’t put a lot of trust in politics.”Mathias Doepfner, chief exec of German publishing giant Axel Springer, warned prior to last week’s decision: “The reputation of ZDF would be damaged if people see that politicians here personally select the journalists who write positively about them.” He added that “both (former Chancellor) Gerhard Schroeder as well as Angela Merkel painfully experienced Brender’s journalistic independence.”

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