Political Satire in Germany: A Win for the Rule of Law, A Loss for Free Speech

Germany paved the way for Western nations to prosecute political satire last week when Jan Böehmermann was told he could face charges for mocking Turkish prime minister Tayyip Erdogan on late night television.

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan

The controversy began when a German TV show called extra3 aired a satirical song about Erdogan. The lyrics were admittedly mild. Nonetheless, the Turkish leader demanded the song be removed from the internet.

Enter political satirist Jan Böehmermann. In an attempt at pushing the boundaries of Free Speech in Germany, Böehmermann wrote his own satirical poem about the prime minister complete with references to the size of his private parts, his alleged fascination with child pornography, and his actions against the Kurdish minority group of Turkey’s northern border regions. In response, Erdogan called for the prosecution of Böehmermann, one of Germany’s most beloved comedians.

The controversy comes on the heels of a crucial deal between the EU and Turkey regarding the removal of refugees from Greece. Thousands of refugees are to be sent back to Turkey where they will remain in refugee camps.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has publicly supported the prosecution of Böehmermann citing Germany’s Volksverhetzung law (incitement to hatred) that in part criminalizes insults against foreign heads of state. She says that while the original song on extra3 was satirical and therefore protected by Free Speech, Böehmermannon the other hand was being deliberately offensive.

Merkel has found little support for her opinion on the matter both amongst the public and within the German parliament. Members of the Bundestag have been split on the issue, no doubt due to the potential political repercussions both within Germany as well as in relations with Turkey, a crucial ally in the war against ISIS and the resolution of the refugee crisis.

The controversy has sparked Free Speech debates around the world. In the West, pundits and commentators have been seen rushing to the defense of Böehmermann. One such supporter is Douglas Murray, author and commentator with Britain’s “The Spectator” magazine and podcast. Shortly after the situation made headlines in Europe, Murray released a request asking for poem submissions that mocked Tayyip Erdogan. The more obscene he says, the better. In fact Murray is offering a €1,000 prize for the most offensive poem.

The situation of Jan Böehmermann and Tayyip Erdogan is one of the few examples in which the Rule of Law reigns supreme while Free Speech is suppressed. As Angela Merkel has pointed out, under German law Böehmermann can legally be prosecuted. At the same time, the situation is one in which Free Speech seems to have taken a loss.

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