Freedoms Are Not Relative

Jan Boehermann

Jan Boehermann

By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach

DRESDEN, Germany — On October 3 Dresden hosted the celebrations for the Day of German Unity, the reunification that was forged in 1990. Bundestag President Norbert Lammert expressed optimism and pride that “We are living together today in a way that generations before us could only dream of: in unity and justice and freedom.” A day later prosecutors announced a decision that made clear that “freedom” includes freedom of speech and opinion, freedom of the press and of artistic expression. It was not a good day for Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The case in question concerned comedian Jan Böhmermann, who was under investigation for having criminally insulted a foreign head of state (Erdogan) in a satirical poem that he read on television six months ago. The state prosecutors ruled that the case against him should be dropped on grounds that “punishable deeds could not be proven with the required certainty.” They stressed that it was questionable whether or not the so-called smear poem constituted an insult; to be an insult, one would need to have “the expression of a degrading, personal value judgment regarding a third party.” Böhmermann’s poem, which was full of vulgar language referring to sex with children and animals, as well as clichés about Turks, was — as he explicitly presented it to his TV audience — an example intended to demonstrate the difference between satire, which is lawful, and slander, which is not. (It goes without saying that he was illustrating the difference between Germany and Turkey regarding press freedom.) The prosecution accepted this concept, arguing that, in context, the contested phrases were so “exaggerated and absurd” that no one could seriously think of them as critical of Erdogan, or as “seriously intended” to apply. Rather, the satirist had made clear that “it was a joke.”

The joke’s on you

In a personal statement Böhmermann expressed his happiness that the prosecution had so ruled, and that they had realized that he is “an unserious prankster” who retails nonsense “as part of his job.” Most important was the fact that it had been “officially established that this is about a joke,” he stated. At the same time, he specified that his “juridical seminar on the theme of smear criticism” was not an accident, but had been carefully preplanned. He expressed his gratitude to the national television channel ZDF which backed him up.

That said, Böhmermann went to the political core of the issue: compared to what intellectuals and artists in Turkey are allowed or not allowed to do, he said, “the fuss made about the ‘Böhmermann affair’ is a big, sad joke.” In Turkey, in fact, anyone who steps outside the limits of critical opinion can be jailed, without a chance of a fair trial, and can be forced to hand in a passport so as to prevent travel abroad. He even mentioned the fact that German citizens of Turkish background are often afraid to speak openly in telephone conversations with relatives in Turkey, for fear of repression. This is bull, he said, “and that is the issue.” In Germany, freedom of opinion and artistic expression are guaranteed. Summing up the political gist of the matter, he said, “When a joke provokes a state crisis, then it is not a problem of the joke, but of the state.”

Erdogan was not among those laughing. His lawyer, Michael Hubertus von Sprenger, said he was “greatly surprised” by the prosecution’s action. Although this case has been dropped, the Turkish president still has a personal civil suit he brought against the comedian, which will go before a Hamburg court in early November. The aim is to obtain a restraining order to prevent further circulation of the poem.

Freedom to Visit

The same day the legal decision was announced, seven members of the German Bundestag left for a three-day visit to Turkey, including to Incirlik, the air base where 250 German soldiers are stationed in support of anti-terrorist (anti-IS) activities in Iraq and Syria. Since June 2 of this year, when the Bundestag passed a resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide, Turkey had refused to allow parliamentarians to visit the troops — though it is by the parliament’s decision that they have been deployed there. The government spokesman Steffen Seibert issued a statement that such resolutions are not legally binding, i.e. that the genocide recognition did not represent government policy. Given the separation of powers and responsibilities, this is strictly speaking true. Critics charged that the government was trying to distance itself as a way of mollifying Ankara’s anger. In purely formal terms, the gesture apparently sufficed to resettle Erdogan’s ruffled feathers. The visit was allowed.

Karl Lamers, a parliamentarian from the government coalition party Christian Democratic Union (CDU) who led the delegation, defended the genocide resolution; as reported by Spiegel Online, he said the Bundestag naturally had “the right to express itself in important questions. This is what we did, and we stand by it.” He added that he hoped this trip would contribute to relaxing tensions between the two governments. Visiting parliamentarian Rainer Arnold, from the government coalition partner Social Democratic Party (SPD), said the renewed permission to visit Incirlik now had not been bought by any compromise on the Armenian issue: “The government cannot distance itself from the parliament on content of issues, and it has not done so.” Rather it had “declared that a resolution has the function of a resolution and represents the opinion of the parliament.” Arnold also hoped the visit would improve relations, even with a “difficult partner,” in the interests of prolonging the mandate for the military deployment which runs out at year’s end.

During their visit the seven members of the Bundestag’s defense committee did meet with the German troops stationed there, as well as with commanders of the Turkish and American military. But the Turkish government declined to receive the delegation, and gave no reason. They met with some members of the Turkish defense committee, according to press reports. The Germans stressed the positive in their evaluation of the trip. Lamers thought it “broke the ice” at least in the tense relations, and it made the Turkish side understand that the German army acts under parliamentary supervision. Whether or not this will lead to the Bundestag’s prolongation of the mandate is not certain; the Turkish side made clear it was not issuing any guarantee that the legislators had an open invitation to visit Incirlik whenever they pleased. Yet it is precisely this permission to visit, as Christine Lambrecht of the SPD said, that “is a compelling precondition for prolonging the mandate.” The Bundestag is expected to decide in December.

Then, on October 10, after the delegation had returned to Berlin, the news broke that Erdogan’s lawyer had rejected the decision by the Mainz prosecution to close the case against satirist Böhmermann and would appeal it. Now it has been moved to a General Prosecutor. Some people really cannot take a joke.