BERLIN (Reuters) - Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives faced accusations on Thursday of ignoring the rise of far-right groups in the eastern German state of Saxony after an incident there involving an off-duty police employee at an anti-Islam rally.
Saxony’s interior ministry confirmed late on Wednesday that the police employee had attended a march by anti-Islam group PEGIDA last Saturday and had reported TV journalists covering the rally to police who detained them for 45 minutes.
Video footage showed a well-built man in sunglasses and a hat in the colours of the German flag confronting the crew, waving his hands at the camera, telling them not to film and reporting them to the police.
State premier Michael Kretschmer, a senior member of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), then appeared to defend the police action, tweeting: “The only people who come across seriously in this video are policemen.”
At a time when Germany is struggling to integrate more than a million migrants, the incident has raised concern both about entrenched right-wing sympathies among the police, especially in the former Communist East, and about press freedom.
A deputy leader of the Social Democrats (SPD), who share power with the CDU in the federal German government, accused Merkel’s party of complacency about the growth of the far-right.
“The CDU in Saxony has for decades denied or trivialised right-wing radical movements and violence,” Ralf Stegner told Handelsblatt daily.
It has “allowed right-wing thinking in Saxony not only to go unchallenged but also to be acceptable”, he said.
German Justice Minister Katarina Barley, also from the SPD, said the events were “very worrying” and had to be quickly and comprehensively cleared up.
“Press freedom is an important part of our society and our constitution,” she said.
Kretschmer has since said he is a convinced defender of a free press and Die Welt newspaper quoted him on Thursday as saying: “I am intent on assessing the situation calmly and in a factual manner.”
Merkel’s decision in 2015 to let in about a million migrants, many fleeing wars in the Middle East, has fuelled support for far-right groups such as PEGIDA and the Alternative for Germany (AfD), now the main opposition party in parliament.
Saxony, the cradle of the PEGIDA movement, is a stronghold for far-right sentiment. In last year’s federal election, the AfD was the strongest party in the state, pushing Merkel’s CDU into an embarrassing second place.
Kretschmer, who has criticised Merkel’s migration policy, faces a tough challenge in next year’s state election to hold Saxony for the CDU.
Neo-Nazis have a strong tradition in Saxony, especially in the capital, Dresden, where they gather every year on Feb. 13 to mark the Allied firebombing of the city in World war Two which killed 25,000 people and destroyed its baroque architecture.
Asked by broadcaster NDR about the off-duty police employee taking part in a PEGIDA rally, a Saxony police spokesman did not deny there might be supporters of the group in police ranks.
“The police is a cross-section of society. We have all political views,” he said.
Reporting by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Gareth Jones