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Covid-19 demonstration in Berlin: is history repeating itself?

The last weekend of August saw demonstrations all over the world where people gathered in protest of the measures taken in response to Covid-19. The largest demonstration took place in Berlin and included speeches that, almost 60 years after John F. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, again warned against the danger of totalitarianism and the end of individual freedom and independence.

This weekend international demonstrations of different sizes could be witnessed all around the world. Reports of the events differed widely, with eye witness accounts counting up to more than 30 times more participants than the regular media. The estimates differ most radically for the demonstration in Berlin, which was the epicenter of this weekend’s international anti-mask and anti-lockdown protest. Querdenken, one of the German organizers, also has a broader political agenda with two main points: all political parties should adapt their party programs to the new situation and explain citizens how and under which circumstances a pandemic is to be anticipated in the special situation; and new elections should be held in October 2020.

One of the most noteworthy events there was the speech by Robert Kennedy jr., almost 60 years after his uncle John F. Kennedy gave his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech. Kennedy started by saying that the media would report that he had been speaking in front of 5,000 Nazis. International coverage of the Berlin event indeed goes in this direction. Many of the analyses focus on the alleged storming of the Reichstag – the home of Germany’s federal parliament – by far rights extremists. Other reports were full of insinuations, stating that participants “wore T-shirts promoting the QAnon conspiracy theory, while others displayed white nationalist slogans and neo-Nazi insignia, though most participants denied having far-right views”.

How is it possible that an event that proceeded peacefully according to all eye witness accounts could be so misrepresented in the media? Apart from the historical comparison between communist totalitarianism in the 1960s and a possible totalitarian future of mass surveillance and compulsory vaccination provoked by Covid-19, it is worth pointing at another similarity. In 1961, John. F Kennedy gave an address before the American Newspaper Publishers Association. His topic was a “sober one of concern to publishers as well as editors”. Kennedy spoke about common responsibilities of politicians and journalists. Some of the memorable phrases from this speech included that the word “secrecy” is repugnant in a free and open society and that the dangers of excessive and unwarranted concealment of pertinent facts far outweigh the dangers which are cited to justify it. He stressed that there can be no excuse to censor the news, stifle dissent, cover up mistakes or withhold from the press and the public the facts they deserve to know.

Kennedy observed that without debate, without criticism, no Administration and no country can succeed. The obligation of the press to inform and alert the people, therefore, is a key element of the speech, which ended as follows: “And so it is to the […] press – to the recorder of man’s deeds, the keeper of his conscience, the courier of his news – that we look for strength and assistance, confident that with your help man will be what he was born to be: free and independent”.

With major newspapers having admitted that they refrain from publishing articles that oppose government guidelines in matters of Covid-19 and with widespread censorship on platforms such as YouTube or LinkedIn, however, the question imposes itself to what extend the international media still meet the ideal sketched by Kennedy almost 60 years ago.

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