Updated | Wednesday, 11:55 a.m.
AMERICANS WONDERING WHAT life might be like in the near future — after a President Donald Trump acts on his promise to “open up our libels laws,” so that politicians with easily bruised egos can sue reporters or commentators for hurting their feelings — should pay attention to what is happening this week in Germany.
That’s because German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Tuesday that her government, while being fully committed to the principle of free speech, is considering a request from Turkey to file criminal charges against the host of a late-night television show on the state broadcaster, ZDF. His alleged crime? Joking about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s thin skin by reading examples of actual slanderous statements about him, in the form of a poem.
The poem, performed last month by the German satirist Jan Böhmermann, was a carefully calibrated insult. The host began the sketch by telling viewers of his show, “Neo Magazin Royale,” that he would read aloud from a text called “Defamatory,” in order to demonstrate the difference between the sort of satirical insults of the notoriously prickly Erdogan that are permitted under German law and legally prohibited slander.
“What I’m about to read is not allowed. If it were to be read in public, that would be forbidden in Germany,” Böhmermann said, before launching nonetheless into a recitation of the full text, which describes Erdogan as a foul monster who has sex with goats and “watches child porn while kicking Kurds.”
As originally broadcast, the sketch included several interjections from Ralf Kabelka, Böhmermann’s sidekick, who interrupted to explain that under German law, certain sections of the poem were clearly not satire but defamation.
Erdogan’s inability to take a joke was in the news last month because his government had reacted to an earlier satirical sketch about him on German television — a spoof music video about his crackdown on free speech at home — by demanding that the authorities in Berlin have it removed from the internet. After Germany’s ambassador to Turkey rejected that request on free speech grounds, Böhmermann crafted his sketch to explain, and test, the legal limits of satire on German television.
The stunt succeeded as a provocation — enraging Erdogan, who filed a criminal complaint with the state prosecutor in Mainz, where ZDF is based, and Turkish officials like Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus, who called the poem “a crime against humanity” — but backfired on the network, which removed the video from its website, and Böhmermann, who was perhaps unaware of an obscure law still on the books in Germany that makes slandering a foreign head of state an offense punishable by up to five years in prison.
In her remarks on Tuesday, Merkel said that the German authorities, including her office, were “very carefully” considering the request from Turkey to prosecute Böhmermann, and promised that the investigation would be concluded within days. The chancellor also seemed to acknowledge the delicacy of the diplomatic situation, by noting the importance of a recently struck deal with Turkey to accept refugees deported from the European Union. But, she said, cooperation with Turkey on that issue “is completely independent of fundamental rights in Germany,” including, Merkel noted, Article Five of the German constitution, which guarantees “freedom of the press, opinion and academia.”
Despite that provision, Germany, like many European countries, does impose legal limits on free speech that ban certain kinds of statements, including Holocaust denial and the promotion of Nazi ideology, but also “defamation of the President, insult of the Federal Republic, its states, the flag, and the national anthem.”
Still, the fact that Merkel is even considering the prosecution of the satirist at the behest of Erdogan has angered Germans across the political spectrum, who have rallied to Böhmermann’s defense online and accused the chancellor of compromising on a core principle of German society to appease the Turkish demagogue.
In a commentary on the “Böhmermann Affair” for Spiegel Online on Tuesday, Stefan Kuzmany suggested that Merkel’s handing of the case “could ultimately cost her the Chancellery.”
Merkel apparently sought to take the wind out of Erdogan’s sails by hastily having her spokesperson announce that the Böhmermann poem was “consciously injurious.” She could have thrown her support unmistakably behind Böhmermann, as one might expect from a chancellor charged with defending the German constitution. His poem was very clearly meant as satire; none of the uncomely imputations therein should be taken — nor were they meant — seriously. The chancellor, of course, knows as much. Yet by adopting Erdogan’s viewpoint, she has essentially allowed him to determine what should be viewed as satire in Germany and what not.
Among those weighing in online in support of the comedian was Yanis Varoufakis, the former finance minister of Greece, whose dispute with the German media was brilliantly satirized by Böhmermann last year in a hoax that was so elaborate that it baffled many viewers.
In an ironic twist, Böhmermann — who devoted another segment of the same show in which the poem was broadcast to attacking xenophobic Germans who harass Syrian refugees in the comic song “Be Deutsch!” — has also been supported, on nationalist grounds, by right-wing tabloids that stoke anti-Muslim and anti-Turkish sentiment.