BERLIN—German prosecutors have opened an investigation against a television comedian on suspicion of offending Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, escalating a dispute over press freedom that comes as Germany relies increasingly on Turkey to solve Europe’s migrant crisis. The prosecutor’s office in the city of Mainz is launching proceedings on suspicion that prominent German comedy host Jan Böhmermann breached a law that prohibits offending foreign heads of state or members of government, senior public prosecutor Andrea Keller said.
Under paragraph 103 of the German criminal code, offending a foreign head of state can be punishable by up to three years in prison.
The legal probe comes two days after German Chancellor Angela Merkel criticized Mr. Böhmermann’s satirical poem, which made crude sexual jokes about Mr. Erdogan. It also follows a weekslong spat over German media criticism of Mr. Erdogan and Turkish reaction to it.
Ms. Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said the chancellor and Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu agreed in a phone call on Sunday evening that the text of the poem that aired on public broadcaster ZDF last Friday was “deliberately offensive,” voicing a rare official media criticism in a country that strongly advocates freedom of the press.
“Strongly advocates freedom of the press”. “Advocates” maybe, the press (reliably within the ‘opinion corridor’) maybe, but speech, unruly, unseemly and difficult to control, not so much.
At this point, it might be worth recalling a conversation last year between the “indispensable European” and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg:
German Chancellor Angela Merkel was overheard confronting Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg over incendiary posts on the social network, Bloomberg reported on Sunday, amid complaints from her government about anti-immigrant posts in the midst of Europe’s refugee crisis. On the sidelines of a United Nations luncheon on Saturday, Merkel was caught on a hot mic pressing Zuckerberg about social media posts about the wave of Syrian refugees entering Germany, the publication reported.
The Facebook CEO was overheard responding that “we need to do some work” on curtailing anti-immigrant posts about the refugee crisis. “Are you working on this?” Merkel asked in English, to which Zuckerberg replied in the affirmative before the transmission was disrupted.
Facebook is a private company and is free to block whatever it wants. I can fully sympathize with it not wanting its pages cluttered with racist posts. But these days the definition of ‘hate speech’ is, shall we say, rather flexible. Merkel’s little chat was doubtless just intended to help Zuckerberg get a better understanding of just how flexible to be.
But back to poor Mr. Böhmermann:
The Mainz prosecutor on Wednesday said the office had received some 20 complaints from “private individuals” about Mr. Böhmermann’s poem, automatically triggering the opening of preliminary proceedings.Under German law, proceedings on suspicion of infringing paragraph 103 of the criminal code can continue only if the Turkish government formally requests that Germany investigate the deed, according to a spokesman for the justice ministry. The Turkish government hasn’t made such a request, a German official said. The investigation was ironically foreseen in Mr. Böhmermann’s satirical treatment of Mr. Erdogan. As he presented the piece, the comedy host said even Germany had limits on what kind of ridicule was allowed and that German courts could block defamatory criticism.
He then read out a poem filled with crude sexual references to Mr. Erdogan to demonstrate this and broadcaster ZDF removed the clip from its website shortly after it went online, stating that the comedy host had “clearly crossed” the boundaries of irony and satire.
After the video was removed, Mr. Böhmermann said on Facebook that he and ZDF had “impressively shown where the boundaries of satire lie in Germany. Finally!”
For anyone interested in Böhmermann’s work, this splendid video (not always in the best of possible taste) is well worth watching. It dates from the days of the Varoufakis (remember him?) menace and comprehensively demolishes the notion that Germans have no sense of humor, or, for that matter, the idea that they are unable to laugh at themselves