Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to first apologize to authoritarian Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for a satirical poem and then approve the prosecution of the comedian is a shocking and chilling disgrace. Merkel, who hails from the former Communist East Germany, has never been a reliable ally to free speech but the crackdown on comedian Jan Boehmermann has shocked the West. Even with the recent rollback of free speech rights in Europe, Merkel’s actions (and the cringing response of ZDF television) has been wake up call for all civil libertarians.
Under German law, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government had to approve a criminal inquiry. While she said that her government would move to repeal the controversial and little-used Article 103 of the penal code, which concerns insults against foreign heads of state, this would not happen until 2018. The provision (dating back to 1871) on defamation of organs and representatives of foreign states, states:
(1) Whosoever insults a foreign head of state, or, with respect to his position, a member of a foreign government who is in Germany in his official capacity, or a head of a foreign diplomatic mission who is accredited in the Federal territory shall be liable to imprisonment not exceeding three years or a fine, in case of a slanderous insult to imprisonment from three months to five years.
It is a ridiculous law that denies the very essence of free speech. Yet it was used successfully by Shah of Persia against a Cologne newspaper in 1964. It was also sued by hen-Swiss President, Micheline Calmy-Rey to prosecution a Swiss man living in Bavaria after he posted offensive comments Calmy-Rey, on the internet. Despite these outrageous cases, Germany has retained the law.
Moreover, Merkel’s fawning apology to Erdoğan, one of the world’s rising totalitarians, was widely viewed as the final capitulation of Western leaders to the calls for greater censorship and speech regulation.
We have seen the erosion of liberties in Turkey after the election of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his coalition of Islamic parties. Just last month, we discussed the arrest of Mehmet Emin Altunses, 16, who allegedly committed the crime of “insulting” Erdoğan. calling people who use birth control “traitors” and saying Muslims discovered America, you are not allowed to be disrespectful or insulting in discussing Erdoğan. Then there was the prosecution of model and former Miss Turkey Merve Buyuksarac, 26, for criticizing Erdogan for quoting a few lines from a poem called the “Master’s Poem” from weekly Turkish satirical magazine Uykusuz. Erdoğan’s totalitarian measures have earned him the nickname “Buyuk Usta” (the Big Master). Even a joking reference to Gollum and Erdoğan is enough to land you in jail today in Turkey.
Böhmermann will now have to prove that his poem was satire about free speech, rather than a deliberate insult — a bizarre standard since satire is often insulting and insults are part of free speech, particularly with regard to political leaders.
Merkel recently denounced the poem was “deliberately offensive” and ZDF television abandoned both free speech and its presenter in pulling Böhmermann’s weekly satire programme last week.
Despite her public apology and statement, Merkel insisted “The presumption of innocence applies” to Boehmermann.
For his part, Böhmermann used humor to respond to his own government’s persecution and told fans he planned to spend his break studying “freedom of the press and freedom of art in greater detail while traveling through North Korea.” He said that his decision to take a break was intended to allow “the public and the Internet can return to focusing on the important things in life, like the refugee crisis (and) cat videos.”
Merkel needs Turkey to take back refugees and has added $6 billion in aid to her sacrifice of free speech to keep Erdoğan happy.
It is important to note that Merkel is not alone in abandoning free speech. Despite its effort to spin the scandal, ZDF, the German network that airs Neo Magazine Royale, showed no courage or principle in taking the offending poem off the web. It then tried to maintain that it “respects” Böhmermann and will support him in any legal defense against the Turkish government.
We have previously discussed the alarming rollback on free speech rights in the West, particularly in France (here and here and here and here and here and here) and England ( here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here). Much of this trend is tied to the expansion of hate speech and non-discrimination laws. We have seen comedians targeted with such court orders under this expanding and worrisome trend. (here and here).
Merkel has plunged Germany into this rising sea of censorship and criminalized speech. Fortunately, polls show Germans are opposed to her and this appeasement of Erdogan. Perhaps the case will serve to focus Germans and Europeans in general on the diminishing protections for free speech in the West. If nothing else, the attempt to imprison a comedian for insulting an authoritarian leader should capture the dire status of free speech in Europe.