The silencing of independent media critical of NGOs based in Germany is raising fears about freedom of the press in the country.
The censorship case has to do with dozens of NGO volunteers and employees who were arrested by Greek authorities in September, which were accused of espionage, ties to organized crime and people smuggling networks. As Remix New previously reported, the NGOs, some of them based in Germany and Norway, have allegedly co-ordinated their operations with Turkish people-smuggling gangs to bring over 3,000 illegal migrants to European shores, mostly to Greek and Italian ports.
Members of the pro-migrant NGOs were reportedly illegally monitoring the radio traffic of Frontex and Greek coastguard ships in order to avoid detection. In critical moments, they may have also flooded Coast Guard ship radios with false signals in order to confuse authorities. These messages must have either come from a ship or from the Island of Lesbos. There are also accusations that Greek Coast Guard communications were monitored.
The arrests have been reported by a small number of lesser-known media outlets but have gone largely undisclosed by the mainstream media. One of those media outlets detailing the arrests was the German independent online publication Tichys Einblick (TE), which has also published a number of other articles in the past detailing ties among radical left-wing NGOs and organized, people-smuggling networks.
Now, one of the NGOs affected by the arrests has taken legal steps to silence the press reporting about their allegedly illegal activities. The legal team of Mare Liberum, a German-based NGO involved in “sea rescue” is demanding that TE sign a cease-and-desist obligation declaration that would in practice prevent them from reporting about the criminal investigation against the NGO.
Mare Liberum is the operator of the migrant rescue ship Sea Watch, which has ferried a large number of mainly African migrants to European destinations. Some of the female passengers they have brought ashore have reportedly been identified as kidnap victims from Nigeria who were destined for European brothels, and the kidnapping gangs have reportedly used the NGO ships to get their victims into the European Union where they were met by handlers from human trafficking networks. The German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees has reported that in 2017, 5,425 Nigerian women have arrived in Italy via sea routes. The International Organization for Migration in Italy estimated that 80 percent of these women were potential victims of human trafficking.
If Mare Liberum were to win the court case, TE and other German media outlets would effectively be denied the right to report on similar cases. Such a gag order would prevent independent media outlets not only from reporting on the ongoing criminal investigation against NGOs accused of human trafficking, but of NGO activism and illegal migration in general. TE expects the legal costs of the court case to run into five-digit numbers, which would be a crippling sum for a small media outlet supported by subscriptions and small donations, as opposed to a large, well-funded NGO that receives money from tax-contributions, from church organizations, chief among them the German Lutheran Church. Some reports also indicate that the NGOs receive partial financing from the German embassy in Athens.
TE also alleges that witnesses that they have interviewed regarding the NGO’s activities have reported being pressured and intimidated by lawyers. TE writes that “police officers, farmers and fishermen on Lesbos, who were questioned by TE, were in turn sued by dubious NGOs. Witnesses are silenced in order to cover up the grievances, including arson in “refugee camps” on Lesbos. The fires in the camps were intended to force Germany in particular to take in even more migrants referred to as “refugees”. There is a risk that these witnesses will be silenced and TE will have to cease these reports”.
TE’s claim that migrants have set fires to their own camps in order to be released onto the European mainland is not a new allegation. In fact, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis indicated that migrants were using such a strategy, labeling it the “Moria tactic”. Migrants burned camps down on several occasions, including the massive Moria camp fire earlier this year that destroyed the entire facility.
TE is asking for donations to help cover its legal fees, yet it is clear that regardless of who wins the dispute, the proceedings could bankrupt one of the last independent media voices in Germany, while it would have little effect on the finances of one of the best-funded NGOs. Since 2015, over €6.2 million in various grants have been paid out to a number of Mediterranean Sea rescue projects by the EU. And although George Soros’ Open Society Foundation claims on its website that they “do not and have never funded the important direct humanitarian response of NGOs, such as the operation of search and rescue vessels in the Mediterranean”, they finance a number of migrant-related projects on shore, such as SolidarityNow, that are an indispensable link in the migration route from Turkey or Africa.