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  • Muckraker! An interview with Hans-Martin Tillack


Muckraker! An interview with Hans-Martin Tillack

In 2004, the Belgian police raided Tillack's home and workplace. Why? Because he was writing embarrassing articles about the EU’s anti-fraud office.

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Hans-Martin Tillack talks about his detention in Brussels like it was just another day at the office. In 2004, the Belgian police raided his home and workplace, held him for several hours, forbade him from calling his attorney and walked off with 16 boxes of files, two computers and four cellphones.

Why? Because as an investigative reporter for the German newsweekly Stern, Tillack was using leaked documents to write embarrassing articles about alleged irregularities in the EU’s anti-fraud office, known as OLAF. Tillack eventually got his files back and won a €40,000 judgment against the Belgian police, €10,000 of which he donated to the International Federation o Journalists’ Safety Fund.

As one of Germany’s premiere investigative reporters, Tillack has written two books about unseemly political and business practices in Europe. The most recent – last year’s bestselling Die korrupte Republik (The Corrupt Republic) – exposes bribes, corruption and conflicts of interest in Germany’s political and business circles, naming names and pointing fingers as few other German books have ever done.

Why a book like Die korrupte Republik? Is the German political system so entrenched in corruption?

I think the main problem with Germany is that we don’t talk enough about corruption here. Of course, many countries certainly have a bigger corruption problem than us, but there is a problem of awareness. Germans often like to think that corruption is only something that happens from Italy southward. Many people place an exaggerated trust in our public bureaucracy. Perhaps that’s why there have been reforms elsewhere to prevent corruption that Germany has not even discussed.

Are you saying Germany is lagging behind in terms of legal buffers against corruption? Do you have examples?

We need less secrecy in the public administration, more public access to information, and laws against the “revolving door” effect, issues which many countries including the US and Canada have already tackled. In Germany, it is possible for any chancellor or minister to join the ranks of a corporation immediately after leaving office – like [former Chancellor Gerard] Schröder did with Gazprom. There is no cooling-off period whatsoever.

Equally, we have no public lobbying registry, which the US has already had for decades. And most importantly, in Germany to this day it is not a crime to bribe a member of parliament, except if you pay explicitly in order to obtain a specific voting behaviour. But it is no crime to give money to an MP to convince him to campaign for your products in committees or political groups inside the parliament.

Do you mean that as a lobbyist, say, I’d be legally entitled to bribe an MP?

That’s right: if you carry a suitcase of cash to an MP saying he should, for example, campaign for the tanks you’re producing – that isn’t a crime. It is a breach of the UN Convention Against Corruption. Germany signed the convention, but never ratified it because the Bundestag has refused to implement the changes to our criminal code that are necessary to comply with it – namely, to make it a crime to bribe one of its members.

The German headlines have been filled with scandal recently – Siemens, DaimlerChrysler, Volkswagen and so on. Do these scandals mean things are getting worse? Or is enforcement, or the media, getting stronger?

I wouldn’t say corruption is getting worse in Germany. There certainly is better enforcement: we now have stricter laws than some years ago, mainly thanks to international pressure. Until recently, it was still legal for German companies to bribe abroad. But because of a German law passed in 1999, companies like Siemens can now be prosecuted.

The Siemens case continues to draw so much international attention. What was unique about it?

Siemens was certainly a breakthrough case because it showed for the first time that managers of big companies can be prosecuted. But one shouldn’t forget, as I wrote in my book, the Siemens case happened mainly thanks to huge pressure from abroad. There were requests from Switzerland, Italy and other countries that German authorities investigate. Previously, requests from Spain had been ignored by German prosecutors. And after the scandal broke, there was pressure from the US because Siemens was listed there and therefore had to comply with US law.

After all this, Siemens did a huge internal investigation that revealed corrupt practices were happening across all branches of the company, not just in one branch [Siemens Telecommunications]. If the German judicial authorities had been the only ones to investigate, they might have restricted themselves to this one branch.

With the Siemens scandal and others, it seems as though those responsible rarely go to jail. When upper-level managers get caught, the worst that seems to happen is that they have to resign.

True – in Germany, white-collar criminals rarely go to prison. In fact, a high federal court has specifically criticized this fact. Our prosecutors often don’t have the resources or the skills, or both, to investigate these cases quickly.

Even when these scandals occur, real change rarely happens without a strong media. In your opinion, how free are journalists in Germany to report on corruption and other sensitive issues?

I’d say that when you’re working for a magazine like ours or Der Spiegel, you have quite good conditions in which to do your job well. We have good resources to do investigations – for travel, to spend the time that’s needed, to access all kinds of archives. But at the same time, under current financial constraints there is a tendency towards fewer resources for investigations.

What about legal constraints? The German Constitution guarantees freedom of the press, but how strong is this in reality?

In recent years, there has been a jurisprudence that has made it increasingly difficult for journalists. Since a 2005 judgment by our highest court, the courts have tended to side more often with so-called “media victims”, meaning that we are more likely to lose a libel case in Germany. If an article creates an impression about the person concerned that can be interpreted in a negative manner, you can be charged and sentenced for libel.

So even if the facts are true, you can actually lose a libel case?

I’ve rarely lost a case, but I did lose one because of this new jurisprudence. It was an article about the Federal Office for Radiation Protection: all the individual facts were correct, but the court said it created a general impression that was negative toward the person concerned.

Has anyone tried to sue you over Die korrupte Republik?

When you write nasty articles about people, of course they are often not very pleased about it, but there have been no attempts to drag me to court over this book. There was one big organization, though, that I dedicated a whole chapter to – our

public health insurance organisation, AOK. I had been writing about them in Stern and they were following what I was doing. They managed to get a copy of the book in advance – by having one of their daughter companies, which is also a publishing house, ask for a copy under the pretence it was for journalistic purposes.

The day the book came out, AOK sent out a critique to several people inside their organisation, which was then leaked to me. In the critique they claimed they could drag me to court, but they didn’t. Obviously it would just have raised the book’s profile.

In Germany, access to certain types of inside information is supposed to have become easier since a new freedom of information law gave people the right to inspect certain government documents. Has the law been useful for you?

I’ve been using this law since the first day it went into effect in January 2006. I have gotten a few documents, but in most cases my requests have been turned down. The government often says the law does not apply, and sometimes they just make up provisions that aren’t in the law. We’ve had one real breakthrough.

What was it? Did it lead to a series of articles?

Yes, my requests successfully led to one story. Until 2007, the government had always refused to release the names of the sponsors who paid for its parties and trips. Because of the new law, I managed after several months of struggle and filing complaints to finally extract the names of these sponsors. In particular, we found out that the Ministry of Defense regularly held big receptions and dance parties that were sponsored by the biggest German weapons makers – companies like EADS. Our articles led to a policy change in the government: now it publishes the names of sponsors on a regular basis.

Is there a strong tradition of investigative reporting in Germany?

There is no such thing. Not like in the US, where you had the muckrakers in the early 20th century. In Germany, it began to develop after World War II with magazines like Der Spiegel and Stern. For many, many years, journalists in Germany were often more interested in expressing opinions than investigating.

What’s different now?

We’ve started looking across our borders and seeing what is happening in countries like the US. Also, at least for the moment, the big ideological battles are over. They may come back one day – I’m sure they will. Ideological battles are important, but when ideology plays a lesser role people are perhaps more interested in getting the facts.

Do you have any hope in regards to these issues of public integrity, integrity in business, corruption fighting and investigative reporting in Germany? Do you see any kind of trend toward more openness, integrity and accountability?

There are more NGOs, like LobbyControl in Cologne, which pushes for more transparency in lobbying. And for quite a while the federal financial auditing watchdog [Bundesrechnungshof] has asked the government to introduce a system for citizens to anonymously report concerns about corruption. The government has finally agreed to set up pilot programmes in one or two ministries.

Germany also has an investigative reporting organization, Netzwerk Recherche, which is nine years old now. So some people are pushing for change, but unfortunately these issues are not very high on the agenda in the general public debate.

What can the people do? Besides voting, how can the average person push issues of integrity and accountability forward?

They can join NGOs. And on the internet, there are websites like abgeordnetenwatch.de [MP Watch], where you can address questions directly to members of parliament.

What is the impact of corruption on the average person?

It is often said that corruption is a victimless crime – unlike murder, where everyone sees who the victim is. With corruption, the victims are anonymous. The victims are the taxpayers, who pay higher taxes because they pay too much for public contracts. And they pay the price when lobbyists are too powerful and laws are passed in the interest of a particular lobby. These are effects that cannot be seen immediately.

Hans-Martin Tillack: biography

As a student in the 1980s, Hans-Martin Tillack wrote articles for Germany’s most famous alternative paper Tageszeitung. He joined Stern in 1993, serving as its Brussels correspondent from 1999 to 2004, and then as an investigative reporter in its Berlin office.

In addition to the OLAF scandal, Tillack has exposed internal corruption at Eurostat, the EU’s statistics agency. As well as Die korrupte Republik (2009), Tillack is the co-author of Raumschiff Brüssel: Wie die Demokratie in Europa scheitert (Spaceship Brussels: How Democracy in Europe Fails; 2003). He won the Leipziger Medienpreis (Leipzig Media Prize) in 2005 for his reporting about the EU.