Shame on German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Christian Democratic Union party for bowing to the pressure of the impervious and incredibly thin-skinned Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoĝan. He has demanded that the German government, under an obscure German law, criminally prosecute Jan Böhmermanm, a German television satirist and comedian, for allegedly insulting him during a recent Zweite Deutsche Fernsehen (ZDF) broadcast. Böhmermanm, jabbing at Erdoĝan’s authoritarian rule in Turkey while pressing the envelope of free speech in Germany, read a doggerel and sexually explicit poem in which the Turkish president was prominently featured. It was more than Erdoĝan could tolerate.
This is not a strange demand coming from a man who oppresses his own people, stifling dissent whenever it surfaces, while throwing journalists in jail if they dare question him or his policies. Almost 2000 cases have been filed in Turkey against citizens of that country who have in some way insulted their president. The definition of what constitutes an insult remains unclear. And not just in Turkey. Erdoĝan’s security thugs roughed up protesters and journalists during a recent official visit to Washington, DC under the protection of diplomatic immunity. On American soil! It is one thing to stifle free speech and expression in Turkey, but now Erdoĝan wants the German government to assist him in his dirty work while chastising it for allowing these insults to occur in the first place. The German ambassador in Ankara was called in for a harsh lecture in the wake of the Böhmermann affair, and an ARD (German public broadcasting) correspondent was taken into custody upon his arrival at the airport in Istanbul.
Article Five of the modern German constitution protects the freedom of speech. Interestingly enough, Germany has an obscure and archaic lese-majeste law originally drawn-up to prevent the insulting of the reigning German monarch - now the revised Paragraph 103 of the federal penal code-making it a criminal offense to insult a foreign head of state, or a representative or organ of a foreign government, although the prosecution of such an offense must be supported by the current German government. This law is popularly known Germany as the “Shah Law”, because the former Shah of Iran tried to bring a prosecution under it in 1967. Erdoĝan has insisted that the Merkel government prosecute Böhmermann to the full extent of the law. Given Erdoĝan’s record at home, the Chancellor and her government should have risen above the fray. Instead, Frau Merkel granted the Turkish request, agreeing that the insult was clearly intentional and clearing the path for criminal proceedings in Germany. The courts will be left to decide Böhmermann’s fate. If convicted, he could face a prison sentence from three months to five years. The courts should not be allowed to define free speech which is protected by the German constitution, and certainly not at the behest of a foreign government that does not honor nor protect free speech. Böhmermann is now under German police protection should Erdoĝan’s thugs try to take justice into their own hands like they did in Washington, DC.
Granted, Böhrmann’s anti-Erdoĝan commentary and poem were puerile and obscene by American standards. Still, the German government and its parties across the political spectrum have never seemed terribly insulted when they were the target of Böhmermann’s invectives and satire. Yet the insulting of Erdoĝan has somehow ventured beyond the pale of what is acceptable. How is this possible? You do not have to agree with what Böhmermann said, or how he said it, but if freedom of speech and expression are to exist, he must be allow to say it without the threat of legal action and prison. It is up to the Turks to decide what Erdoĝan can get away with in their own country, but Germany should not be playing Erdoĝan’s nasty little game.
Recent German polls show that only 28%, mostly fellow members of Merkel’s CDU, support her decision to permit the prosecution of Böhmermann under the archaic provision of German law. Opposition from the Social Democrats (SPD), her coalition partner, also threatens the stability of her government. Frank-Walter Steinmeier (SPD), the foreign minister, held a press conference opposing Merkel’s decision, and Heiko Maas (SPD), the justice minister, has now drawn up legislation to immediately repeal Article 103 which he plans to quickly put before the Bundestag, the German parliament. Frau Merkel’s decision is hard to decipher when one considers that her government continues to chide the Turkish government to respect free speech and judicial independence and had already announced plans to scrap Article 103 before this recent flap with Erdoĝan. So why would the Germans choose to enforce it now? Even if the German legislation passes, Böhmermann will remain in Erdoĝan’s cross-hairs. The Turkish leader has also filed a private defamation complaint in the German courts.
Frau Merkel’s once impressive personal approval rating is also declining, due in large part to the growing unpopularity of her open door policy toward the massive influx of refugees into Germany and the surging political power of the extreme right wing. It is therefore strange that Frau Merkel would take the side of an oppressive regime in Ankara over the basic rights of a German citizen. Why?
The answer is simple. Germany needs Turkey as a partner in order to stem the tide of refugees and other migrants escaping from Syria via Turkey and entering the European Union in Greece. Freedom of speech is no longer on the table when negotiating with the despot in Ankara to protect the European Union’s migrant deal in which Turkey has agreed to allow Syrian refugees to remain in Turkey while taking back many now housed in transit camps in Greece. Some might recall how the United States tried to prevent the filming of Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” in 1938 when Nazi Germany threatened economic sanctions. Political and economic realities often trump the preservation of civil and human rights. Others have even compared Merkel’s decision to the appeasement offered up to Hitler to spare Europe from war. We all know how well that worked out.
Frau Merkel, in the face of this growing opposition at home while watching her popularity decline, has now admitted that errors were made; it was a mistake to characterize Böhmermann’s poem as “intentionally insulting” [ "bewusst verletzend"]. Yet she stands by her decision to allow the investigation and possible prosecution against Böhmermann to continue. This seems a high price for Merkel and Germany to pay to prop up the autocratic Erdoĝan who now seems unsatisfied only to hush opposition at home. There are a number of reports circulating that Turkish diplomatic posts are searching social media for items appearing to insult Erdoĝan. What next?
I guess I am safe here in the United States where one of the leading presidential candidates has insulted just about every foreign leader he can name. I am not taking any chances of visiting Istanbul any time soon. I saw “Midnight Express” and I am quite certain the Turkish penal system has not improved under this new Sultan of Kasimpaşa.
Shame on Frau Merkel for taking the easy low road. She was once in the front ranks of world leaders marching in solidarity through the streets of Paris decrying terrorism aimed at the free expression of idea in the wake of the Charlie Hedbo massacre. Much of the civilized world was crying out “Je suis Charlie Hedbo.” Free speech, for which so many died in the offices of Charlie Hedbo, has fallen victim once again a pawn where despots call the shots.
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