Fighting Hate with Speech Law: Media and German Visions of Democracy

Tworek, Heidi J. S.
The Journal of Holocaust Research

In Germany, far-right groups have revived Nazi terminology like Lügenpresse (lying press) or Systempresse (system press) to decry the media today. German politicians, journalists, and the public have turned to numerous methods to try to combat the reinsertion of Nazi language into everyday German life. One key method is the law. Prior to the 2017 German election, the German parliament swiftly passed the Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz (Network Enforcement Law, NetzDG for short). While English-language press has often called this act a hate speech law, it actually enforces 22 statutes of extant German speech law online. Spearheaded by the SPD-led Justice Ministry, NetzDG represented the most public effort by the German government to push back against the AfD, the far right, and the rise of hate speech in Germany. NetzDG attracted huge global attention as the first major law to fine American-based social media companies for not adhering to national statutes. This article examines why German politicians turned to law as a way to combat the rise of the far right. I explore how NetzDG represented German political understandings of the relationship between freedom of expression and democracy and argue that NetzDG followed a longer historical pattern of German attempts to use media law to raise Germany's profile on the international stage. The article examines the irony that NetzDG was meant to defend democracy in Germany, but may have unintentionally undermined it elsewhere, as authoritarian regimes like Russia seized upon the law to justify their own curtailments of free expression. Finally, I explain the difficulties of measuring whether NetzDG has achieved its goals and showcase a few other approaches to the problems of information in democracies.