In the months and years since it erupted in the United States, the #MeToo movement has spread across the globe, galvanizing social change in some countries while failing to gain momentum in others. Why this difference in reception? One explanation centers on media law. MeToo is sustained by the ability of journalists to bring public attention to the stories of people who have been sexually assaulted or harassed by powerful perpetrators. Without this freedom, victims of abuse are silenced and an abuser’s reputation endures, continuing the risk of harm.
In Germany, whose media law differs substantially from that of the United States, one case—astonishing and infuriating in its scope and severity—illustrates how legal protection from defamation can serve as a weapon against the most vulnerable. Juliane Löffler and Thomas Vorreyer, reporters for BuzzFeed Germany and Vice Germany, respectively, collected dozens of allegations of sexual abuse and assault from patients of Heiko Jessen, an HIV specialist of international repute who holds a practice in Berlin. They published their joint investigation in 2019, but after swift legal action from Jessen it was banned by the court and the article was taken down; it has been offline for more than a year.
The court based its decision not on the quality of the reporting, but on an obligation to preserve the possibility of Jessen’s innocence in advance of a criminal trial. Caitlin Chandler writes: “Precisely because the articles had presented such a massive amount of detailed evidence against Jessen, the judges said, no reader could come to the conclusion that he was innocent. The reporting was ‘not balanced.’”
Meanwhile, Jessen’s lawyer accused the press of engaging in MeToo hysteria and Löffler and Vorreyer of doing “American-style journalism.” Today, Jessen remains a practicing doctor with major sources of funding for his research. Chandler’s story for CJR is the only one on the record to name Heiko Jessen in connection with these allegations.
––Camille Bromley, story editor
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