Berlin, GERMANY (WIAT) — It is important as a journalist to expand one’s horizons by learning how other journalists do their jobs. Turns out, that can end up being very different, and exciting at the same time. I am spending two weeks doing just that. I have been accepted into the RIAS journalist exchange program. The word RIAS stands for “Radio in the American Sector,” which was an instrumental force in informing the people of of American sector of Berlin during the Cold War. Remember JFK’s “ich bin ein Berliner” speech? Yep, RIAS was there live. (check out riasberlin.de for the full details). Under this exchange program, journalists from the US go to Germany to learn how journalists in that country cover news. In addition to that, there will also be an emphasis on government matters, along with a trip to NATO in Belgium. That covers the quick explanation. The first week is focused in Berlin.
Day one brought us to the house of Germany’s parliamentary body (Bundestag) — Reichstag (in Berlin). Without going into deep detail, this historical building is the home of Bundestag. It’s where sessions are held and decisions are made. The building tells many stories — from when the country was led by emperors, to Nazi occupation, to the introduction of a democracy, and today. What I found incredibly interesting (and somewhat confusing) is how that democracy is run. It’s somewhat different from how things are done here in the U.S. (like with the number of representatives from each political party – wow), but the opinion I’ve heard is that it is fair, orderly, and common-sense. Reichstag is definitely a must-see: The architecture covers such a long period of time and it’s very visible everywhere. I also suggest looking for the artistic contributions to the building from the US, UK, France and Russia. If you’ve seen pictures of a big dome on top of the building, that’s for more than just looks, it symbolizes transparency in government as well, because one can walk to the top of the dome and look down into the plenary room where Bundestag meets. All very accessible, and all very “dem deutschen volke.” (to the German people).
After that, we headed to one of the (two) public TV stations in the country — ZDF. Now, when an American thinks of public TV, they most likely think of maybe PBS, with it’s smart content, but constant fundraising drives. Now don’t get me wrong, ZDF’s content is beyond exceptional, but there’s not the problem of trying to find funding. That’s because all German households pay a fee for TV (not for service, that’s a different story, and one that is hashed out through the friendly local provider). For simplified explanation purposes, it’s sort of like a tax, but it’s not. It’s deducted directly from bank accounts, and is about 17 – 18 Euros. As I’ve been told, it is not something that people really get up in arms about, it’s just an accepted thing. I think if something like that went over in the US, there’d be protesting from sea to shining sea. However, this fee generates billions for the system. This also allows them to spend much more time on documentaries, and other informative and educational pieces. What station in the States wouldn’t love that?
There are also two private stations, one that I’m told will be visiting later in the program. These are more like your normal US TV stations. They are funded by advertising. The private stations’ focus is different from public stations, in that you will see a greater focus on entertainment content, like movies, maybe some of your favorite TV shows that you like to watch, like “CSI” and “Grey’s Anatomy.” There are the 24-hour news channels, but that doesn’t seem where the greater effort is given to.
To clear up potential questions, just because there are two public and two private stations, that does not mean that there are just four channels on TV. Each station runs programming on several channels, so the dial doesn’t stop at 4.
Day two was very much an official-type day: we visited government buildings. After all, Germany will be holding elections for Chancellor. However, before our visits, we had lunch with Mr. Thomas Habricht, a Berlin correspondent for “shz.” He had a wealth of knowledge of Germany’s progress of the reunification, as well as ongoing problems/conflicts between west and east Germany. He spoke of his experiences with the Stasi spies, and how many of his colleagues were either spied on, or ended up being the spies themselves.
After lunch, we took a visit to the SPD (Social Democratic Party) headquarters to speak with a representative there. This was actually quite interesting; we ended up having someone else speak to us than originally planned; because the campaign coordinator for Chancellor candidate Peer Steinbruck was fired for a number of reasons. Even so, we had a great conversation with the last-minute replacement. She gave a good view on how exactly elections are conducted in the country as well as the state of her SDP party. There are some of the same problems political parties face in the US, including finding ways to engage voters.
Next stop was the Federal Foreign Ministry, to speak with Mr. Harald Leibrecht. Mr. Leibrecht is a member of Parliament, and the Deputy Head of International and European Union Policy. He and his team are looking for ways to improve the trans-Atlantic business relationship between the US and Germany. Both countries are already working together to try and improve both economies; for example, think about Mercedes-Benz here in the US. Both sides can benefit from projects like this. Mercedes expands its market by building cars in the US, and jobs are created stateside.
After the visit to the Federal Foreign Ministry, we took a look back into time with a visit to a remaining portion of the Berlin Wall. The East Side Gallery is a stretch of wall by the river that has been painted by a number of artists since reunification. The first person to take brush to wall was a Mr. Kani Alavi, a German-Iranian artist. He spoke vividly of his life in Berlin before, during, and after the wall fell. He felt such emotion when seeing the wall come down, that he decided to paint what he saw that day. You can see the sea of faces as the people make their way from east into west. His painting remains on the wall to this day, which is actually across the street from the O2 building. Mr. Alavi is now spearheading the effort to save the Gallery from developers who want to tear it down.
Let’s move to Thursday – day three. it begins with a talk with Reuters correspondent and RIAS commissioner Erik Kirschbaum. He is an American journalist, living in Germany, so he had an important POV for the group. He was able to give us the viewpoint of America, from the eyes of Germans. And let me say, it is not probably what many of us would think. The view of the US from Germans (for the most part) is actually pretty positive. Of course, issues of gun control and such are those that they do not see eye to eye with Americans about. Still, the horizon looks good. The country is stirring with excitement for the pending visit of President Obama in a few days at Bradenburg Gate; which, sadly, we will not get to see.
After breakfast, we head to the German Federation of Trade Unions, to speak with Mr. Frank Zach. Mr. Zach shed light on the mission to improve labor relations in the country. What I found interesting was how the unemployment system works, and the number of under or unemployed people in the country. Income is very much like the US; the gap between the rich and the poor is only widening. Labor unions are asking for better wages and better working conditions. Mr. Zach says the country is one of the few in Europe without a standard minimum wage. That will definitely be an issue on the table for candidates in the upcoming election.
I think our lunch meeting was one of my favorites. We met at the famous Hotel Adlon to speak with Mr. Ali Aslan, anchor of “Quadriga” by Deutsche Welle. Mr. Aslan is of Turkish descent, living in Germany. Even before our discussion, I knew of how controversial the subject of the Turkish in Germany can be. There are issues of whether people who immigrated from Turkey should be allowed full German citizenship, (or even if they want to) education equality, and religious equality and the perceived threat of terrorism. Some of the issues discussed rang true with those in America – big topics: immigration, civil rights, terrorism. The next German Chancellor will be facing some pretty heavy issues during his or her term.
The final meeting took us to the Green Political Foundation, where we learned about the platform of the Green party, which involves environmental and ecological issues that the US seems to be lagging in.
Friday makes day four. We began our expedition at the US Embassy. They are definitely busy there, with the President visiting Berlin soon. It’s interesting to see all of the preparations and advance legwork it takes to bring a President aboard.
The next stop was to the home base of the German Chancellor – the German Chancellery, or the Bundeskanzleramt. While we didn’t see Dr. Merkel there, we got a tour of the building, and spoke with two representatives who answered our questions about the German military and how the government system works, which is a democracy (although it can be a little confusing to understand).
Our last stop was the Stasi prison, Hohenschonhausen. Guided tours take you through the prison where people were locked away during the Soviet-occupied Germany. We heard tales of the secret police police arresting thousands of people, and leaving them there to lose their minds, or even die from the inhumane conditions and torture. Many people were locked away for years without ever being allowed any proper legal recourse. Truly an eye-opening experience.
Saturday gave us the opportunity to explore Potsdam. We toured Wannsee Villa, which is the location where the NDSAP made it’s plan to solve the “Jewish question.” Such a beautiful place, one many never believe such horrid things happened there.
We then made our way to the home of the Potsdam conference between Stalin, Churchill, and Truman. The home was a former estate for a prince.
The last stop was to Sans Souci. I highly recommend this visit, even if you don’t go inside. It reminds me of a slightly smaller Versailles, with gold-plaited detail work and statues everywhere.
Week two will take us to Bonn and nearby Cologne for the Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum, and a visit to private news station RTL, then to Brussels, where we will visit NATO.