BERLIN (Guardian) — In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s inability to take a joke may hardly be news. But after the Turkish government asked for the prosecution of a German comedian for performing a satirical poem about its president, it is now well known in Germany, too.
Coming shortly after the European Union’s “refugee swap” deal with Turkey took effect, the row has not only triggered a debate about the limits of free speech in Germany but also raised questions of whether Europe has made itself too reliant on the moods of Turkey’s strongman president, who is engaged in a crackdown on the media in Turkey.
In a short clip from a late-night program screened on the German state broadcaster ZDF at the end of last month, comedian
sits in front of a Turkish flag beneath a small, framed portrait of Erdogan, reading out a poem that accuses the Turkish president of, among other things, “repressing minorities, kicking Kurds and slapping Christians while watching child porn.”
The scene was broadcast shortly after it emerged that Turkey had demanded the deletion of another satirical song from the German comedy show extra3, and Böhmermann’s poem was deliberately framed as a test of the boundaries of satire. Throughout his reading the comedian is advised by a “media lawyer” who tells him that this is precisely the sort of thing that does not qualify as satire.
“What could happen now?” Böhmermann asks after finishing the poem. “Potentially they’ll take it off their website,” his sidekick tells him. And so the German state broadcaster did, explaining that the show “didn’t live up to the requirements that ZDF makes for the quality of satire programs.”
On April 6 it emerged that Germany’s state prosecutor was investigating Böhmermann for violation of the little-used paragraph 103 of the criminal code, which concerns insulting organs or representatives of foreign states. At worst the comedian was facing a prison sentence of up to three years – though until the Turkish government filed its formal request for Böhmermann’s prosecution, few seemed to think that the case would go ahead.
Apparently in order to try to appease the Turkish government and discourage it from pursuing the matter via legal challenges, Merkel told Turkey’s prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, that the poem was a “deliberately offensive text” that she personally disapproved of. But the Turkish government seems to have read her comments as an invitation.
According to Spiegel magazine, the German foreign ministry, justice ministry and Merkel’s office are in talks over how to respond to Turkey’s request. Merkel’s spokesperson Steffen Seibert said a decision would be reached within days, not weeks.
The affair has divided the German public. The chief executive of the Axel Springer media group, publisher of the bestselling tabloid Bild, has called for solidarity with Böhmermann. In an op-ed in Die Welt, Matthias Döpfner praised the poem as a successful attempt “to make us think about how a society deals with satire – and, more importantly, the satire intolerance of non-democrats.”
The veteran German comedian Didi Hallervorden has recorded a song in support of Böhmermann titled Erdogan, Sue Me.
Defenders say poetry designed to cause offence, referred to as Schmähgedicht in German, has a pedigree that goes back to the invectives of classical writers such as Cicero or Juvenal.
Critics dismiss Böhmermann as an attention-seeker. “There’s a difference between making fun of your own or other people,” wrote the columnist Georg Diez on the website of Der Spiegel. “It’s a question of power, style and sensibility — and in his poem Böhmermann is using humor of the coarse and bellowing type.” One journalist, Hakan Tanriverdi, accused the comedian of racism.
In a government press conference on Monday, Seibert said Merkel wanted to make it unequivocally clear that freedom of speech was “naturally the highest good,” irrespective of whether she considered a satirical piece “tasteful or tasteless.”
But senior members in Merkel’s party have sounded far from unequivocal on the matter. “In a constitutional democracy we all have to stick to the rules, and one of these rules is that offending foreign heads of state is punishable by law,” the CDU general secretary, Peter Tauber, said in an interview with the NTV news channel. “You cannot simply say that’s a legal norm but it doesn’t interest me.”
For Böhmermann, whose boundary-pushing show “Neo Magazin” has won him many young fans in a German comedy scene that can be prone to the formulaic, it is not the first time he has found himself in hot water.
In March 2015 he caused controversy by claiming that he had digitally manipulated a clip in which Greece’s then finance minister Yanis Varoufakis seemed to show the middle finger to the Greek people. It later emerged that the video was real and Böhmermann’s “admission” was a satire on the frenzied media debate on the Greek debt crisis.