Reporter's Notebook: NHPR Journalist Reporting from Berlin...Germany
As part of a fellowship with the RIAS Berlin Kommission, NHPR's Paige Sutherland will be traveling around Germany for two weeks - meeting with the country's politicians and policy makers as well as local journalists. The goal of the trip is to better understand how issues abroad can have an impact on the stories that matter at home in the Granite State.
Over the course of the fellowship, Paige will be blogging her experiences right here - so bookmark this page and check back to see her photos and find out what she's learned.
After my red eye from Boston to Berlin, I had the whole day to explore Germany's capital before the program officially kicks off. I went to the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag Building, and saw the remains of the Berlin Wall. But what made the biggest impression wasn't one of the tourist destinations, but this makeshift memorial outside the U.S. Embassy.
The memorial consisted of dozens of flowers, candles and LGBT themed flags in honor of the 49 people who were killed in a mass shooting at a gay club in Orlando, Florida over the weekend. People even lined up around the corner to sign a condolence book for the victims and their families.
This display of human compassion for victims more than 4,000 miles away was my first lesson of the trip, in that, what happens in one country does have an impact around the world - whether that's positive or negative.
The issue of whether to take in Syrian refugees has been a hot-button one for many leaders around the world as well as individual states in the U.S. Last fall, Gov. Maggie Hassan called to halt the intake of Syrian refugees until, she said, the vetting process was more thorough. But that hasn't been the case in Germany, where the woman in charge has opened up the country's door, letting in more than one million Syrian refugees so far.
I got the chance to meet some of these refugees when visiting a shelter in Berlin. The shelter was located on the grounds of a turf soccer field on the outskirts of the city. The 300 refugees who lived there stayed in a seal-locked tent that can only be described as something that mimicked what one would see on Mars. The rooms where communal - housing several people, but separating the women and children from the men. Those who stayed here were waiting to get approval from the government to stay, which could take from a few days to months.
One Syrian refugee said he's been here seven months and still hasn't been granted asylum, which prevents him from going to school or getting gainful employment. He has however taken classes to learn the language and received lessons on German culture to help him better assimilate.
This refugee, who asked not to be named, traveled to Berlin with his 15-year-old brother by a lifeboat from Turkey. He describes how he, along with more than 70 other people, made the nearly seven-hour trip at night. His parents are still back in Syria.
For those seeking asylum from Syria, it takes a little bit longer to process the paperwork because the government has a terrorism vetting process. This is a challenge because many don't have paperwork when they arrive.
Although the Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, has been praised by many for her "compassionate" stance on taking in Syrian refugees, talking to those who work with asylum seekers, it seems those charged with processing these applications don't have the numbers they need to get the job done.
When you talk to German officials about America, the name Donald Trump will likely come up. And the question, they tend to ask is, "how did someone like Trump gain so much popularity in the U.S.?"
According to senior German political correspondent Thomas Walde, the German public thinks the idea of Trump becoming president is "pure nuts."
Germans have seen what Fascism looks like, he said, and are very sensitive to any leaders that resemble such ideals. Germans are particularly upset about Trump's plans on immigration and building a wall along the Mexican border, explaining, "building a wall doesn't resonate too well with Berliners."
But when asked whether the Democratic presidential candidates resonated more with Germans, Walde immediately responded, "Yes."
Walde described how the ideas proposed by Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders such as universal healthcare, free college education and wealth equality were values Germans live by. And when it comes to Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, Walde says, "the idea of having a woman as number one, is not foreign to them at all." (German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been in power for more than a decade.)
Although America's election isn't taking place until November, Walde says if Germany were voting on the candidates today, "the vote would be 95 to 5, Clinton versus Trump."
As a State House reporter, I took particular interest in the tour of Germany's parliament building, the Reichstag. Apart from its grandeur, rich history and overall political structure, the set-up of Germany's legislative sessions reminded me quite a bit of covering the State House in Concord.
First, its members tallied up to 630 people, which although is higher than New Hampshire's, it's pretty close to the state's number of 400 House members. With those numbers in mind, the tour guide began to explain how session days are long, lasting for hours, with little breaks and lots of debate - something I've grown quite accustomed to at the N.H. State House.
Second, the tour guide recounted how recently one of its members was arrested for drug possession, which is when former New Hampshire Rep. Kyle Tasker came to mind. Tasker was arrested on drug charges as well as trying to solicit a minor back in March.
And lastly one of Germany's voting methods didn't quite bring me back to Concord but struck me as something I think N.H. lawmakers would love to adopt someday. Basically, when the 630-member body can't find a majority vote, members leave the chambers and have to re-enter through three doors marked "yes," "no," or "absention." Two clerks then stand at the door and count the hundreds of members who past by each doorway. This tradition, referred to in German as Hammelsprung, more or less means the cattling of sheep. Although this voting tactic isn't something that has taken hold in New Hampshire, it could actually make for a much more viable solution than having to call on each individual member each time the electronic counting system breaks down, which unfortunately happens too often in N.H.
Being a public radio reporter, I was curious of how the public, private media sector differed when it comes to journalists in Germany. In the U.S., working for public media means you have to fundraise, as the majority of our revenue comes from our listeners. But in Germany that revenue does come from listeners - but in a different way.
Each household in Germany has to pay a flat-rate of 17.5 Euro every month, which funds public media. Therefore, no fund drives or sustaining memberships are needed to support public journalism in Germany. And with this fee, the public tv/radio sector takes in about 9 billion Euro a year, but although this fund is lucrative, the money is used towards stories rather than salaries.
When it comes to the private sector, their revenue stream is nearly half as profitable. That means their resources for certain events are limited. For example, during the "Brexit" vote on Thursday the private network station, ARD, will be sending four staff members to cover the vote, meanwhile the competing public TV station will send 20 people. As well, during the World Cup the public stations sent an estimated 700 people to cover it and 800 to cover the last Olympics, which are drastically higher numbers than the private stations can afford.
Although the private sector may complain that having this monthly fee gives public journalism an unfair advantage; many of the German officials claim that after the Nazi regime, ensuring that the news is independent is crucial to the country's democracy.
Learning about German history, the two major events that come up are the Holocaust and the Cold War. Both are times in Germany's past, where the country wants to desperately learn from its "mistakes" and move forward. But moving forward does not come without scars.
During the Cold War, those who lived in East Berlin were prisoners within their own community - they couldn't leave the city district, and if they tried they were arrested or worst, killed. Those who were suspected of trying to escape were under surveillance by the government's secret service. Therefore, privacy was felt to be nonexistent during these times and its a feeling that has continued to linger.
This skepticism in privacy is normal for New Hampshire - a state that values limited government and fears Statsi tactics (aka Cold War surveillance). Privacy is so highly regarded in German culture that even some journalists fear using twitter for work as they don't trust the government to have such personal data about them. This sentiment is shown frequently in New Hampshire when lawmakers debate issues such as the use of drones or police body cameras.
Although its been more than 26 years since the Berlin Wall fell down, Germans still seem to be wary of a time in the future where the government could again use its influence to exploit and punish its citizens. And because of that, privacy has been a commodity that's held dear by many of its residents.
When it comes to the Syrian refugee issue in Germany, the focus tends to be around how Germany will be affected and not the refugees. In Erfurt, Germany we got to sit down with a group of refugees who described their take on being in a country where not all of its residents have welcomed them.
Abdullah Saif-Aldin, 33, fled Syria to come to Germany last year. His journey began in Libya and then Turkey, Italy and finally Germany after more than a month of traveling. Once Saif-Aldin was granted permission to stay in Germany, his wife and one-year old daughter were allowed to come as well. But integrating into this new Western country was not easy for Saif-Aldin and his family.
Although the German government has been one of the few countries in Europe to open its borders to Syrian refugees, not all the country's residents are fans of this policy. Saif-Aldin says when he first arrived many of his neighbors would not say hello to him and were afraid of him because he was Muslim. Saif-Aldin also described how his wife had a more difficult time as people were uncomfortable around her because she wore a burca. Saif-Aldin says he doesn't understand why people are afraid of him and stresses that his time in Germany is only temporary until its safe for him to go back to his home country, where he says he "had a very successful and beautiful life."
Emine Karoca, 22, came to Germany seven years ago from Turkey. She says at first she was discriminated against because of her faith. Karoca says so far she has had to leave two jobs, once because one customer tried to physically attack her, and another because a client at a department store she worked at said he wouldn't buy anything from a Muslim. After learning the language, living in Germany has been easier, but Karoca says not everyone wants refugees here.
Unlike many European countries, Germany not only has opened its borders but also provides social services for the incoming refugees. Those who are allowed to stay in Germany, roughly 1.5 million so far, are given stipends for rent as well as living expenses and provided language/integration classes. This has angered some of the German citizens who oppose taxpaying dollars going to foreigners who don't pay into the system - a sentiment that has caused some outrage towards the incoming refugees.
Besides the economical impact, some Germans also fear the incoming Syrian refugees may have ties to the terrorist group, ISIS. Therefore, although Germany has become a safe haven for those fleeing Muslim countries - not only is the journey to Germany an arduous one but once they are here, living in a society where not everyone wants you there, hasn't been easy.
With the U.S. presidential primary wrapping up, the general election became a common talking point whenever American politics came up. And when speaking with German journalists about how they cover federal elections, their stories were very different.
When it comes to campaign coverage, reporting on the German federal elections starts months in advance, unlike in the States where it starts almost two years before voters cast their ballots. And debates are less frequent than in the U.S. This recent U.S. presidential primary there were roughly 25 debates and that's not including the upcoming general election debates. In Germany, there's only one debate.
According to prominent political German anchor Peter Kloeppel, German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed to one debate or none at all. Merkel, who's likely to run for a fourth term in 2017, has been the country's top official for more than a decade now. Because there is only one debate, Kloeppel says the country's four prominent news stations all share the coverage. That means each station's reporter, including RTL'sKloeppel, must compete against one another to ask the candidate's questions.
Besides the limited number of debates, the structure is a lot less entertainment driven and more hard-hitting than American debates. The questions are more centered on policy than personal questions, unlike the U.S. primary debates this election cycle. But although more debates would be welcomed in Germany, Kloeppel says he doesn't want the vast number or style America has adopted.
The day we took a tour of the European Union (EU), was the day Britain voters were deciding if they wanted to stay in the EU or not. This “Brexit” vote is a pivotal moment for the stability of the EU as the United Kingdom’s exodus could have major implications including influencing all the other 27 countries who’ve ever pondered leaving the EU to do so as well.
For Britain, this wavering decision to leave the EU came down to cost. In order to be a part of the EU, member countries need to contribute a portion of its import tax, sales tax as well as a sliver of the state’s GDP annually. Those part of the “leave campaign” believed the EU was a costly European bureaucracy that was no longer working. This group estimates that the UK sends 350 million Euro to the EU every week, which they claim could go to fixing the country’s health care system.
During our visit, EU officials were brief on predicting the outcome of today’s referendum, saying it was anyone’s guess how the votes would turn out. But Jens Mester, who works in the EU’s communications department, stressed that the EU like any government is not perfect, “but the EU brought countries together who once fought each other in wars and now they are negotiating and working together,” adding that this split could break down this progress.
Besides grilling officials on today’s vote, we were lectured on the EU as a whole – its overall makeup and how it functions. Which I won’t drown you with the details but let’s just say there’s an appointed president, a European Commission made up of a leader from every member state and the European Parliament, which is made up of 750 members. Also, the EU as a whole employs more than 30,000 people and has a yearly budget of 150 billion Euro. These numbers and the fact that this governing body lacks transparency due to its complexity is something the “leave campaign” latched onto to try to convince voters to split from the EU. For example, the “leave campaign” likes to point to the fact that the 750 member Parliament and its staff travel to Strasbourg, France once a week for meetings – something that’s financed on the EU’s dime.
To wrap up our tour, we ended with the daily EU press briefing, which was short-lived and lacked any substance. But according to local journalists this was normal. Every question was geared at the UK’s vote today, but the EU’s press secretary continuously dodged questions and actually talked about the 2016 Euro Cup soccer championship more than issues related to the EU. Although many left this briefing with little to no new information, I was happy to find out that asking political figures questions and not getting answers was not just an American thing.
After Thursday's national referendum, the United Kingdom has decided to leave the European Union after 43 years. This is a historic moment for Britain as well as all of the EU's 27 other members as the U.K. is one of the EU's leading member countries. Now the U.K. will have to negotiate with the EU its exit terms on policies such as immigration, trade, security and several other key treaties umbrellaed under the EU.
The "Brexit" debate centered on whether the U.K. wished to continue paying the EU to govern them, which in a 52 percent vote Thursday, Britain decided they did not. Those for the "leave campaign" argued the EU was a failed bureaucracy which was no longer working.
After this decisive vote, Britian’s Prime Minister David Cameron decided to step down. Cameron for months urged voters to side against the “Brexit” campaign saying Britian is “stronger, safer and better off inside the EU,” but his voice was not heard strong enough on Thursday. During his announcement Friday afternoon, Cameron said that, “The British people made a different decision to take a different path. As such I think the country requires fresh leadership to take it in this direction.”
The process of choosing his successor will now begin. Meanwhile, electors in Scotland, Northern Ireland and London voted to remain in the EU. Scotland’s Prime Minister will be traveling to Brussels next week to see whether splitting with the UK is necessary to stay within the EU.
The UK’s exit plan from the EU will begin shortly – negotiations are expected to take up to two years. Therefore, many in Europe are still unsure of what the “Brexit” vote will mean long term.
Whenever you hear about the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), one often thinks of the military. The reason being NATO is mostly brought up when talking about its role in various war-torn countries such as Afghanistan, Libya, Kosovo, etc. Although NATO is military-based, its officials stress that it’s a “political military alliance,” with emphasis on the fact that every military intervention began with a political conversation centered around safeguarding democracy and freedom.
NATO officials also stressed on our tour Friday that this “political conversation” although many claim is controlled by the U.S. - it is in fact governed by consensus. Therefore, each of the 28 member countries has a voice and if everyone can’t agree – they keep talking. Although this type of process takes longer, NATO officials argue it fosters trust and collaboration among its members.
This alliance dates back to the times of the Soviet Union when stability was uncertain, but now many question whether such an entity is still needed. But with the rise in terrorism globally, NATO officials don’t expect any “Brexit’ type vote anytime soon. Like the EU, NATO is funded by its member countries but its budget is significantly lower roughly 2.2 billion Euro – which is 148 billion Euro less than the EU’s. How much each member pays is based on its GDP; however, the U.S. is capped at 21 percent, but they do contribute the most military personnel to NATO missions. With that in mind, NATO does not have its own soldiers; therefore, it relies on the member countries to provide troops. Under the NATO contract member countries are required to spend 2 percent of its GDP on defense, which the U.S. spends more than double that. As well NATO’s employees consist of 6,000 compared to the EU’s 30,000.
In two weeks, NATO will be having a summit in Warsaw to discuss its future agenda, which is focused on keeping stability in Russia as well as the Middle East. But as we’ve noticed in recent times, curbing terrorism will be an immense challenge as its threats have no geographical boundaries.
Speaking of geographic borders, this I believe is something the U.S. holds dear – almost too dear. We are citizens of the United States of America, and pride ourselves on that; therefore, the U.S. tends to be classified as isolationists. And even as a journalist, I fell into that trap, knowing very little about the EU, NATO or Europe’s overall cultural and social dynamics before this trip.
But after spending nearly three weeks in Europe from Berlin, Erfurt, Cologne, Brussels to Paris – I realized how vital it is to be exposed to what’s happening outside one’s country’s borders. And although this knowledge is beneficial to me as I continue reporting, it is vital to me as a citizen and voter to know there are other values and ways of life that differ from the one I’m exposed to back home.
Being in the U.S., it’s easy to look at our systems and think they’re perfect but without looking beyond the U.S. how would one ever know. During our trip we learned about the differences in Germany’s political structure, their way of journalism, healthcare, education, tax structure, immigration to even gun control. Although not all of these differences were positive or practical in the U.S., learning about them is key to make sure the policies in the U.S. continue to be questioned and held accountable whether by its citizens or in the media.
Europe may be thousands of miles away from the States, but there is no reason to believe that even a state like New Hampshire could not benefit from looking outward from time to time to see what can be learned from other countries.