An award-winning reporter at the heart of Europe’s largest journalistic scandal in years has voluntarily handed back four prestigious press awards, while being stripped of others, reports The Guardian.
Claas Relotius, a 33-year-old reporter for Der Spiegel and several other publications, has “gone underground,” according to the Guardian. He texted officials with the German reporter of the year prize to apologize and announce that he was returning the awards.
Meanwhile, CNN stroipped Relotius of two Journalist of the Year awards, and a German publication also stripped the journalist of a similar accolade.
At least 14 articles by Relotius for Der Spiegel were falsified, according to Steffen Klusmann, its editor-in-chief. They include an award-winning piece about a Syrian boy called Mouwiya who believed his anti-government graffiti had triggered the civil war. Relotius alleged he had interviewed the boy via WhatsApp.
The magazine – a prestigious weekly – is investigating if the interview took place and whether the boy exists. Relotius won his fourth German reporter prize this month with a story headlined “Child’s Play”.
Klusmann admitted the publication still had no idea how many articles were affected. On Thursday it was revealed that parts of an interview with a 95-year-old Nazi resistance fighter in the US were fabricated. –The Guardian
According to Relotius’ Der Spiegel colleague Juan Moreno – who busted Relotius after conducting his own research after his bosses failed to listen to his doubts, released a video in which he attempted to describe how Relotius got away with his fabrications.
“He was the superstar of German journalism if one’s honest, and if his stories had been true, that would have been fully justified to say so, but they were not,” said Moreno. “At the start it was the small mistakes, things that seemed too hard to believe that made me suspicious.”
Moreno referenced a story that the two of them worked on together on the US-Mexican border, in which Relotius claimed to have interviewed several people who did not want to be photographed. This made Moreno question his colleague.
“At some point I just thought something is monumentally wrong here … I started to do my own research only to discover that that protagonist had already appeared in the New York Times,” he said.
“A lot of people have been asking me: ‘Is there a particular pressure at Spiegel to come up with the hottest stuff, always the best stuff, yours is after all one of the few newspapers which still sends people out into the world, for which you have to do a lot of research etcetera?’ Yes, there is this pressure to deliver good material, but above all there is a duty to ensure that it is true, for heaven’s sake.”
Moreno said Relotius was a “well-liked colleague, who was modest and charming, a fantastic colleague, that was the overall impression.”
A commission is now reviewing all of Relotius’s work including during his years as a freelancer, when he wrote for many respected German and Swiss newspapers.
Der Spiegel, which sells about 740,000 copies a week and has an estimated 6.5 million online readers, said it was keeping his works in its archives for the time-being for “the sake of transparency”, and to allow anyone with information about works that may have been faked to come forward with evidence.
German commentators said the scandal could be as damaging to the media’s reputation as the faked Hitler diaries scandal in 1980s – 60 volumes of diaries supposedly written by the dictator that were pronounced genuine by historians and serialised by the magazine Stern and other publications around the world. –The Guardian
Relotius grew to prominence as somewhat of a superstar reporter
covering fabricating propaganda about the Syrian crisis; in particular, he gained acclaim for one article which centered around the plight of a teenager from the city of Deraa – who defiantly stood up to Syrian President Bashar al Assad using graffiti as a weapon to spread his message of freedom.
The article describes Deraa as the last “resistance” stronghold against Assad – and the beginning of the Syrian “revolution,” – while the teenager who didn’t exist – was described as a “liberator” and “legend” to “thousands.”
A different report focused on more Syrians in the depths of despair at the hands of Assad. “They had lost everything – their parents, their house and their country,” to the “dictator,” Relotius wrote.
Der Spiegel, meanwhile, says that the Reloius incident will change the way they operate in the future.
On Wednesday, the magazine launched what it called a transparency campaign, pledging to investigate Mr. Relotius’ entire body of work and publicize the results. It said it had so far found made-up facts in 14 out of nearly 60 articles.
Stefan Niggemeier, an independent media blogger in Berlin and a former Spiegel journalist, said some of the articles at issue appeared to confirm certain German stereotypes about Trump voters, asking “was this possible because of an ideological bias?”
A spokesman for Der Spiegel said that the magazine is investigating what if any role potential bias may have played. –WSJ
Those on the German political right have seized on the scandal.
Martin Sellner, of the Identäre Bewegung in Austria, part of the far-right “identitarian” movement, described the scandal as “phenomenal” and “spectacular”. In a YouTube post, Sellner said Relotius had been exposed as a “representative of the lügenpresse”, or lying press, a term used widely during the Nazi era to denounce the media, and now in broad use among far-right populists.
“This is a good day,” Sellner said, “because it exposes what we’ve known for a long time, namely that the lying press is not only the lying press, which presents things incorrectly, distorted, covers up …. but also quite simply that it makes up stories.”
According to the anti-immigration Alternative für Deutschland, the case means it is justifiable to question the entire German news media’s agenda.