With a left-wing coalition set to form the next government in Germany, ethnic and religious minority politicians remain in the crosshairs of far-right extremists
Sarah-Lee Heinrich has been a rising star in the left-wing Green’s youth party. On October 9, the party named the 20-year-old as its official spokesperson and what happened next was a barrage of hate mails and death threats on social media, targetting Sarah-Lee.
The online abuse forced her to go into hiding.
Sarah-Lee is black, a woman and fairly vocal about matters relating to environmental conservation, equal rights and minority participation in politics in Germany – her political stance puts her in stark contrast to that of the country’s far-right.
Sarah-Lee’s story isn’t unique. The far-right in Germany has stepped up its harassment of minority politicians in recent years. Earlier this year, another Green party aspiring politician who wanted to be the first person of refugee background in the Germany parliament, Tariq Alaows of Syrian descent, stepped down from his candidacy and out of politics following similar death threats.
And now, one of Berlin’s leading female politicians of Palestinian descent says, “the moment you enter politics in Germany, you expect to be attacked by the far-right in what is often a well-coordinated, organised attack, almost as if someone is directing and funding it”.
Sawsan Chelbi was born and brought up in Germany. Today at 43, she is the Secretary on Federal Affair for Berlin State and also holds an advisory role in the Senate.
“It was when I started working on internal matters and became State Secretary (in 2016) for civic engagement including racism, the hate became very loud, very visible. I used social media to raise my voice – the hate increased exponentially, it was almost unbearable, I got lots of death threats, I was attacked physically on the street, whenever I tweet something even now I get so much hate. It’s not just social media, I get postal mail,” she laughs as she recounts the postcards she receives with messages of hate.
The well-coordinated hate campaign, Sawsan says, and the intensity of it, has discouraged many from minority groups from entering politics. She calls on social media platforms to help authorities to identify individuals involved in orchestrating these hate campaigns.
For now, a few feet away, sit three men in black leather jackets, they’ve been part of Sawsan’s 24-hour police protection after she began receiving death threats and hate mail from far-right extremists a few years ago.
“It’s every day, every time I tweet something, I get abuse and hate messages, often racist, sexist and too often criminal in nature”, she says.
Identifying alleged perpetrators
One of the many threats Sawsan has received, read: “You have no idea of what you are doing, what are you doing? politics? There’s no other way to say this, girl you’re completely mad, and have mental problems you c**t. F**k off out of Germany, this is the final warning. We will kill you all, we will f**k you, we will beat you up”.
Sawsan was attacked in the street by a man, she describes as a skin-head with lots of tattoos, “he said to me, go back to where you come from, and then pushed me”.
“At that time, I didn’t tell anyone, not my family, not my friends, because I feared they would ask me to change my career”, she says.
Hate Aid, an NGO that provides counselling services and legal help to victims of online harassment and death threats, says it’s getting increasingly difficult to prosecute alleged perpetrators who use social media platforms to spread hate speech.
Josephine Ballon, who heads the legal team at Hate Aid, says, “social media platforms are not legally obliged to identify alleged perpetrators to the police. Back when social media platforms were small and no one realised that one day they could be used to promote hate speech, countries in the EU were all too eager for them to settle in their land and create thousands of new jobs, and therefore offered them the ‘country of origin’ clause, which means the social media platforms only had to conform to that actual country’s laws and not the entire EU’s.”
This means that to identify an alleged perpetrator of hate speech, German police would have to approach the police force of another country to identify an individual and then get an address to serve legal notices – or in very severe cases, they can request social media platforms to help voluntarily.
This cumbersome process requires legal and investigative resources putting further strain on police forces.
Sawsan says she’s holding her ground, “the threats and the hate mail has shown me just how important it is to continue doing what I am doing, also, I want to decide when I go out of politics, I don’t want them to be the reason”.
In the last Parliament, only 58 members out of around 700 total members of the Bundestag came from a migrant background, while in the current Parliament, elected at the end of September 2021, the figure stands improved at 83, but still short of the 26 percent of Germans who come from migrant backgrounds.
18 of those lawmakers are of Turkish background, one of Germany’s largest migrant groups.
Sawsan hopes that with her political party, the left-wing Social Democrat Party which is set to form the next left-wing coalition government in Germany will legislate to make it easier for authorities to prosecute alleged perpetrators of hate speech.
Sarah-Lee Heinrich came out of hiding and accepted the coveted post of the Federal spokesperson for the Greens Youth wing, but now is in consultations with the police for possible 24-hour protection, which means she might have to coordinate her work and her personal life with her police guard for as long as she wants to have an active role in politics.