German Protestant journalist was 'voice for the voiceless'

By Ecumenical News International
September 4, 2010

Germany is remembering the man known as the "father of Protestant media" on the centenary of his birth and paying tribute to his unswerving belief in the need for journalistic independence write Peter Kenny and Stephen Brown.

Born on 1 September 1910, Robert Geisendörfer was appointed director of the Bavarian Protestant Press Association in 1947. His task was to rebuild church media work after the Nazi dictatorship of Adolf Hitler and the Second World War.

A tribute published on the OVB online news site ( recalled his motto: "The task of Protestant journalism is to make something public, practise advocacy, demonstrate compassion, and be a voice for the voiceless."

After his stint at the Bavarian press association, Geisendörfer became the broadcasting commissioner of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), the country's main Protestant umbrella. Later he was director of the Protestant Press Association of Germany, then responsible for the German Protestant news agency, the Evangelischer Pressedienst (epd).

Geisendörfer went on to found the Frankfurt-based Association for Protestant Media (GEP) as a centre for German Protestant communications work. This took over responsibility for epd, Germany's oldest news agency, founded in the year of Geisendörfer's birth.

At the time there were concerns that epd's journalistic independence might be affected by being part of GEP, but these were quickly dissipated.

Instead there were protests from some church officials against EKD subsidies for epd's independent journalism as set down in its charter. Such church officials believed that epd should only report on what was "beneficial" to the church.

A tribute published by epd recalled Geisendörfer's belief that Protestant journalism could exercise its role only in journalistic freedom.

"Geisendörfer doggedly and unflinchingly stood up for such freedom against the demands of the leadership of the church," the tribute recalled of Geisendörfer, who died in 1976 aged 65.

Earlier in 2010, epd marked its own 100th anniversary, with a celebration in Berlin at which the keynote speaker was Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in a church milieu due to her father being a Lutheran pastor in the former East Germany.

In front of 300 guests from Church, media, politics and society, Merkel praised the role of epd as an important sentinel helping to ensure that "political and social institutions are controlled, criticised, and made transparent".

In her speech at the 3 February ceremony, Merkel noted it is not always comfortable for churches or their leaders to read news about them that is critical.

"Which pastor or bishop likes to read about certain drawbacks or deficiencies they may have? This may be a normal situation for politicians, but in church institutions, respect and dignity is maybe still understood differently," said Merkel. "In this regard one can certainly expect a tense relationship with the churches."

Still, Bishop Ulrich Fischer, who heads the EKD's media committee, said in his congratulations to the agency, "Sometimes news from epd is uncomfortable, even for a bishop. But in the final analysis, such critical support also helps one to get one's own statements right."

The agency now reaches about two-thirds of the daily newspapers in Germany. It says it serves a combined total of 37 million readers, as well as public broadcasters and online clients.

Eight regional services are linked with each other and to the central editorial office in Frankfurt/Main. More than 80 journalists are employed for epd in more than 30 German towns and cities.

ENInews and epd also have a news exchange agreement and the German agency provides text and photos for the areas of church and religion, media and education, society, social affairs, and development issues.

The Rev Olav Fykse Tveit, the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, a founder member of ENInews, said in an anniversary message, "Without the central and important role played by Church and church-related news agencies such as epd, the voice of the Church in society cannot be heard."

Tveit noted, "That this voice is able to be heard in a credible and professional fashion is not just a question of using the best tools and structures, but depends crucially on the credibility and competence of staff and management."

He added, "The independent and critical position of epd thereby corresponds to the essential criteria for the task of news agencies in democratic societies."

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]


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