Wir werden uns wiedersehen, Berlin
As I leave this lovely city and bid adieux to new friends, its time for a reflection.
I came here at the invitation of the German government’s Foreign Office through their embassy in Bahrain. I came rather hesitantly as I had to take ten full days off work at a time where we’re rather busy preparing for an important project. It took some convincing but I’m now very glad that I accepted to participate. Of course this would not have happened without the excellent team running the office, they’ve really stepped up to the mark, which not only made the trip possible, but actually quite pleasant and without worry.
Nevertheless, I felt that 10 days for a conference is far too long. Normally I would attend a 3 day conference and be itching to return home at the end the first day! That feeling was shared by my colleagues here too, but when the time came to wrap up, we all felt glad to have been invited for this period. In 3 days you hardly start forming a relationship, while the 10 days gave us good time to get know each other, explore Berlin and participate in many cultural activities. It gave us the chance to gel together as a group and become good friends.
The program prepared for us was comprehensive, but not overwhelming, it was designed to give us time to enjoy each other’s company while visiting various Berlin venues and cultural events. The program’s structure and contents were outstanding with obviously a lot of thought put into it to make it relevant to us all.
From a naturally skeptical crowd, the tone and quality of the next ten days were set on the first day of business with excellent presentations from some of the luminaries of the field. The first day brought us in contact with the German political blogging scene through Robin Meyer-Lucht, a communication scientist who runs the influential carta.info, a group blog with some 40 contributing writers, 3 editors and one editorial assistant. The editorial staff are fully employed by the site. The site now serves about 60,000 unique users per month and is monetised by using various techniques. It is currently experimenting with both Kashingle and Flattr as new revenue streams and the initial results are encouraging.
Overall, in Robin’s estimate, the German political blogosphere, although still evolving, is driven by passionate bloggers who have become influential in the field. Business enterprises and their supporting services like some PR agencies hoped to ride the blog popularity wave by initiating their own blogs and twitter streams but have been largely discredited as “astroturfers” whose intention is to create content which migrate appear genuine at first, but ultimately shown as either subtle or brash attempts at promoting a product, service or business, something bloggers and general Internet consumers find distasteful if not deceitful.
The German blogosphere is no different from the worldwide phenomenon. It too has its memes, aggregation sites which provide an easier way for consumers to find relevant content quickly and offer an appropriate venue to expose new blogs and of course the obligator rankings, be those generated non officially or through established ranking sites like Technorati.
When it comes to the legal structure of blogging; however, the situation can seem quite daunting to the uninitiated. If not farcical at times, but as those gathered for the seminar are political bloggers with each one of them with experiences running into the law, Jan Mönikes presentation was eagerly awaited, even though some started with the usual skepticism, once Jan got going, his engaging style and relevant information presented soon captured our full attention. I know some have emphatically commented that it was t he most important presentation in the whole program.
The third and forth presentations after lunch were equally interesting. One dealt with the political blogging scene in Germany presented by Jens Berger of http://www.spiegelfechter.de and the other was about the relation between citizen journalism and classical journalism in Germany by Matthias Spielkamp of www.immateriblog.de which generated an intense debate given that his topic is the classic goading cry for bloggers: “relation between citizen journalism and classical journalism in Germany”. He almost got lynched! The end result; however, is that everyone had his own opinion about the subject with no clear resolution being adopted, as expected. It was a lot of fun though!
Saturday and Sunday were tour and food time. We were given a guided tour of Berlin and the Heavens cooperated as well by making the tour authentic. It incessantly rained! That gave me the chance to prove that my Canon 50D is good for use underwater without modification. It still works!
To make every meeting opportunity fruitful, the organisers always included relevant and interesting people for us to meet and talk with. On Sunday’s dinner we were joined by Germany’s Managing Director of Reporters Without Borders, Mr. Christian Rickerts, whose experiences he shared together with the various cases his office handles, from championing the freedoms to express oneself through to actively helping defenders, journalists and bloggers who have fallen foul with their governments, and boy those are many. It seemed to me that the whole world has increased the pressure on basic human rights freedoms, or is it because of modern communications that we actually get to hear of them more often now?
Guided Tour of the Stasi Archive
The hairs on my neck stood stiff when I first read that activity in our program. A natural unmitigated revulsion for the idea of state organised spying. That feeling was made even more so when one realizes that the perception of what happened in the GDR, is still being actively pursued by various governments around the world. With the most oppressive now neatly contained in our lovely patch, one doesn’t need much imagination to know what’s being kept on whom, and the natural instinct to continuously look over one’s shoulder is not alien at all.
But Germany did something better with this. After reunification and against concerted efforts to destroy the millions of records, the new government preserved them with the clear intention of transparency and making those records available to their owners. Germans could still individually apply to the BStU Archiv to find out if the Stasi did have them under surveillance and wether the record is available for their viewing. A lot of people apparently took the opportunity to look into their lives from the Stasi’s point of view. That experience brought with it painful discoveries; some of those who gave up information and informed on them were in some cases not only colleagues and friends, but close family members like spouses, siblings and parents.
There are many warehouses full of these records all over Germany. The Berlin bureaus for instance contains some 18 million records. If just the A5-sized index cards were placed side-by-side, it is estimated that the resulting line would extend 5,000 kilometers! Of course those cards led to other confidential cards leading to various folders kept on individuals. Apart from the paper trail, the Stasi also kept film, photographs (over a million in Berlin alone), video, audio and probably some DNA samples all of which were meticulously categorized and cross-referenced.
These centres now offer deep research material of the era where several scholars are investigating. What they will get out of it will probably be very interesting to note. One of the results of these research efforts I should think is to preserve the German consciousness so that this kind of unauthorised state spying will never happen again.
I promise you that the hairs on the back of my neck continued in their erection and the sense of revulsion at such methodical voyeurism by the state never left me while we were at the BStU Archiv. Yes, I know it’s over now and Germany has made huge strides at coming to terms with itself, but the over-riding feeling I had then was, if the Stasi did that then, what the hell are our governments doing now, given the plethora of technological devices available at their fingertips now?
The visit to the BStU Archiv convinced me more than ever that legislation must be inculcated which protect against such intrusions. People have a right to their privacy. People have a right to expect and demand transparency from their governments. People have a right to access information. But unfortunately what our parliament here seem to be more content with is the reversal of all of these universal rights.
Does anyone know what’s happened to that legislation that Andrew Hearn wanted to pass through to demand high-court approval before the State Security here spies on people’s communications?
A visit to the source of the news
The afternoon was more pleasant and much closer to our cups of tea I think. After a nice lunch, we visited DPA, the German Press Agency (Deutsche Presse Agentur) and were received by its editor-in-chief and managing director Mr. Christoph Dernbach. Christoph gave us a short presentation about the history of the DPA then opened the floor for questions and answers. Needless to say, we all had many questions. Herr Dernbach was very accommodating and not only answered them comprehensively, but also gave us a tour of his newsrooms. That afternoon was very interesting for me personally and opened my eyes on the mechanics of such organisations.
We also saw how progressive the DPA is. I guess it being independent gives it the opportunity to chart its own paths, and one of those is to provide 300 of its journalists with 300 small video cameras in order for them to produce video content for their subscribers websites! The cameras they received were the small Sony Xacti CG10s. Journalists are of course trained on how to use them in the field, top and tail the material shot if need be then simply upload the raw footage directly to their bureaus in Germany for craft editing. Once the editing is completed, video packages are then released on appropriate websites and sold on to clients.
It’s good to see that “old style journalists” are cajoled into new technologies. They seem to be quite fine with the idea too. I guess to a professional journalist, a video is yet another tool in his quiver and if he can tell a story with the pen, he most certainly will be able to tell it through video as well.
Other than the DPA, we also visited Deutsche Welle TV station and given a guided tour of the facility culminating in a presentation and discussion led by Gabriel Gonzalez, the Project manager of the Deutsche Welle Blog Awards “BOB’s” regarding the awards, which some found controversial.
On another day, we also visited Der Tagesspiegel offices and took a valuable hour of their online chief editor’s time in which we discussed their online strategies and their continuous efforts of integration between print and online. Their overall strategic direction, wisely I think, is to completely remove any distinction between those two worlds and gradually motivate their journalists to be fully conversant with the online world so that they can contribute to either medium whenever required.
Der Tagesspiegel, like the DPA, also provided their journalists with video cameras to file video reports in the field. In fact, on the same day we visited, they had a journalist abroad who was trying (unsuccessfully at the time, a condition which I hope is resolved by now) to upload video content to their office for editing and processing.
Meeting with the officials
As we were in Berlin at the invitation of their Federal Foreign Office, it was only expected that we would spend some time meeting with their officials, and that we did on several occasions.
Our first visit to the Federal Foreign Office coincided with a Palestinian delegation visit, I am told that Mahmoud Abbas was there that day, so they were a bit careful in corralling us through the complex to get to our meeting destination. However I did glimpse a press conference in progress on our way out. I didn’t; however, was able to discern who was in it and what it was about.
The first Federal Foreign Officer to meet us was Herr Eberhard Pohl, the Deputy Political Director of the Federal Foreign Office who briefed us on their politics a bit, but none of us felt other than his interjections were classic politicospeek. Saying much but stating nothing! Or, as my fiend Milos said in his blog about the occasion:
Welcoming the bloggers by the German Foreign Ministry: “It’s tremendously exciting to meet you. I must say that I don’t often meet bloggers. I even looked up Rasmussen blog last night to see what this blogging thing is!”
Likely translation: “You are the bloggers? Really wish I knew who it arranges these meetings. What are you really? Yeah and I wonder if today we will have eintopf or gulášovka in the cafeteria?”
liberal paraphrasing and help from Mr. Google as my Czech is still not perfect!
Today the flow of information and public debate increasingly take place outside the traditional media. In many parts of the globe this also happens as a consequence of local conditions that impede the work of a free press. Here bloggers take over an important function and confront authoritarian regimes with particular challenges. However, even in countries where press freedom is guaranteed, bloggers enrich the media landscape with their particular take on things.
German Foreign Office blog
I’m glad to say that the other two gentlemen we met at the foreign office were more interesting and most engaging. Herr Markus Löning, Federal Government Commissioner for Human Rights Policy and Humanitarian Aid at the Federal Foreign Office was demonstrably very passionate about his job, very well travelled and knows his stuff. Although he has taken up this task very recently, he was very aware of our areas, especially the happenings in the former Soviet republics around the Caspian Sea. Not only that, he knew exactly who was imprisoned where and for what! Upon hearing of the death sentence delivered in Singapore against Yong Vui Kong for drug trafficking, he immediately offered to send a letter to the Singaporean president to ask for clemency and to register Germany’s stance against the death penalty. He listened with attention to other bloggers feedback on the human rights situations in their countries and promised to take up various issues at the first opportunity he has when meeting respective countries’ representatives.
The other gentlemen from the Foreign Office we met and have had the pleasure of having lunch with at the Foreign Office International Club was Deputy Minister Herr Michael Zenner, Commissioner for Communication of the Federal Foreign Office, who is also the person directly responsible for inviting us to Berlin. We had a wonderful lunch with him as he was interested in everyone’s story and chatted about his experience with the web and his department’s efforts at modernising the communications structure for the better.
The last day of the tour was interesting. The organisers invited Claus Hesseling to talk to us. Claus is a journalist, lecturer for multi-media and online journalism at inwent and at the Technical University of Berlin.
Claus split us into teams and got us to do presentations about topics related to the last 10 days’ experience and conclusions which were all very similar more or less. Our team presentation was about the effects of blogs on traditional media and the challenges they face. The presentation is available here should you wish to view the bullet points, but we concluded that generally the German media websites have some growth potential as they are not as advanced as those available in the UK and the States. Examples were given for comparison like The Guardian in the UK and the Washington Post in the States.
We also concluded that the media laws in Germany are obtuse, even though Article 5 of their constitution was – to our mind – quite unambiguous.
Every single one of us enjoyed the trip. What we all agreed on is that we have formed good relationships both with each other and the excellent organisers, specifically Lucien Koch, Lisa Moldenhauer and Deniz Ulusoylu.
We agreed that this initiative must continue as each one of us has a lot to offer and there is excellent potential for us to cooperate. Therefore, we decided to start a group blog which will be dedicated to those invited in this initiative and each of us will frequently post relevant articles. The details of this project are still in discussion, and I shall be happy to share the outcome of these discussions with you once they are concluded.
So even though we started this trip with a lot of skepticism, we end it now with a solid outreach program through which we hope to contribute to world understanding.
On behalf of my colleagues, I wish to thank the German Embassies in the participant’s countries and His Excellency Dr. Hubert Lang, the German Ambassador to Bahrain, the German Foreign Office and Kaiser Communications for making this program happen. They all made this trip unique and completely useful.
We’re so looking forward to doing this again soon and to keep up the momentum gained through the last 10 days. It has been a real pleasure indeed.