Tübingen, Germany: When German comedian, Jan Böhmermann, did a satirical sketch on state run ZDF TV this month, accusing the Turkish president of “repressing minorities, kicking Kurds and slapping Christians” as well as suggesting he has “sex with sheep and goats,” Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan went ballistic and called for the satirist to be prosecuted under a little known German defamation law. The row has opened a Pandora’s box of troubles for German Chancellor Angela Merkel: should the law be scrapped; how far does free speech and satire go; what grip does the Turkish president have around the Chancellor’s throat?
Many Germans argue that they need strong anti-defamation laws because the Third Reich spent a lot of time insulting people. Article one of the 1949 German basic law says “Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority.” But in reality, the lèse-majesté law dates back to the founding of modern Germany in 1871 when the Kaiser was very sensitive about his public image and banned hurting the dignity of any reigning soveriegn. Kaiser Wilhelm II extended the lèse-majesté laws to forbidding the denigration of any non-royal foreign heads-of-state.
In theory, ‘truth’ is no defense. If a foreign ruler embezzles money, you could go to jail for calling him a “thief.” If he uses his army against his own people, you could find yourself behind bars for calling him a “butcher.” Paragraph 104 makes it a crime to denigrate the flag and symbols of a foreign country, so, while demonstrators in the US are protected when they burn the American flag, a German can go to the hoosegow for doing it.
At question in the present case is Paragraph 103 of German criminal law and Erdogan wants it used against Böhmermann. The Turkish president was already angry at a satirical song about his repressive measures against the press, judges and Kurds broadcast in Germany in March.
The fact that Böhmermannn said what he was about to do is “illegal” does not help him. If anything, it shows premeditation. But if his goal was to challenge the law, he has succeeded. Leaders from the socialist SPD, the Greens and the right wing Alternative for Germany are all calling for the law to be scrapped.
Merkel is in a lose-lose situation. If she pushes prosecutors to investigate whether the law was broken, she will be accused of “caving in to Erdogan,” at a time when the opposition is criticizing her for giving too much to the Islamist leader in exchange for greater Turkish efforts to stem the flow of migrants. If she refuses, she fears Erdogan could open the valves, letting a new flood of migrants into the continent and further undermining her support in Germany.
Germany is not the only country in Europe to have lèse-majesté laws: Italy, Poland and Switzerland have such laws while the Netherlands, Norway and Spain have it only for royals. It is still illegal in Britain to call for the abolition of the monarchy, even by peaceful means. But such laws are rarely used: 1879 in the UK. London decriminalized most defamation in 2009 and France abolished most lèse-majesté of insulting a foreign leader in 2002 and their own president in 2013 but insulting an ambassador to France still carries a 45,000 euro fine.
Is it really about the law, or the man?
What is probably influencing the debate most in Germany is Erdogan himself. Many Germans are furious he is using the migrant card as a lever to influence Merkel. He is also being denounced on the left for aiding Islamic Jihadists, repressing the Turkish press and magistrates and sending his armed forces against his own Kurdish people. Human Rights groups are complaining Erdogan is sending Syrians back to Syria and cannot be trusted.
Among the measures Merkel agreed to in exchange for greater efforts to keep the migrants from reaching Greece was billions of euros in aid to Turkey and visa free travel for Turks to the EU members and accelerated EU membership talks. Merkel had been a long time opponent to Turkish membership.
The Chancellor’s popularity took a nose dive and she fell out with her Bavarian sister party, the CSU, after the arrival last year of 1.1 million illegal migrants to the country and their role in New Year’s Eve violence against women. She is desperate to stem the flow of migrants.
“The German penal code can be changed quickly, but not quickly enough to let off Böhmermann,” Ralf Höcker, a media lawyer, told The Guardian newspaper. In fact, the Bundestag could abolish the law within two weeks. Erdogan would surely become outraged and who knows what his reaction could be? At any rate Höker said he expected a trail to go ahead but he does not think Böhmermann will be sent to jail.