German TV Comedian Takes Broadcasting Break Amid Free Speech Battle

Courtesy of ZDF
Jan Böhmermann

Jan Böhmermann, who could face jail time for insulting the Turkish president on his news satire show, told fans he planned to spend his break studying “freedom of the press ... while traveling through North Korea.”

Jan Bohmermann, the comedian at the center of a freedom of expression debate in Germany, has announced he will not return to TV for several weeks.

The beleaguered satirist, who has been the focus of a media and legal frenzy since he read out a "slander poem" mocking Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on live TV, said he would take a broadcast break until May 12.

Bohmermann made the decision, he told his fans on Facebook, so that "the public and the internet can return to focusing on the important things in life, like the refugee crisis [and] cat videos." He added he would spend his break outside Germany, taking the time to study "freedom of the press and freedom of art in greater detail" while traveling through North Korea.

That final line was a not-so-subtle dig at the German government and Chancellor Angela Merkel, who last week said Germany would allow the Turkish president to pursue criminal charges against Bohmermann under an obscure German law that makes it illegal to insult a foreign head of state. If found guilty, Bohmermann could face up to five years in prison.

Merkel has said her government will scrap the relevant law — paragraph 103 of the Criminal Code  — by the end of her current term in office, but that won't help Bohmermann.

The decision has been one of the most unpopular of Merkel's political career. A poll taken over the weekend by German public broadcaster ARD found 65 percent of Germans disagreed with the Chancellor and only 28 percent supported her. Only 10 percent of respondents said Bohmermann should be prosecuted. An online petition in support of the comedian has received more than 230,000 signatures.

Critics say Merkel is caving in to pressure from Turkey so as not to sabotage a deal with Ankara on the immigrant crisis. The German leader has backed a plan whereby the European Union will pay Turkey $6 billion in aid, along with other political concessions, in exchange for Turkey taking back Syrian refugees from Europe. The deal is aimed at stemming the flood of refugees coming into Europe.

Bohmermann, 35, and his family remain under police protection in Cologne, where he lives.

The case centers around a poem the comedian read out on his weekly news satire show, Neo Magazine Royale, on March 31. In it, he mocked President Erdogan for his authoritarian leadership, saying the Turkish leader, among other things, enjoyed sex with various farm animals while abusing religious minorities. Bohmermann prefaced his poem with a disclaimer saying he was about to illustrate the boundaries of freedom of speech and satire. The skit was in response to Erdogan calling for a much tamer satire of him, from another German comedy show, to be taken off the internet.

ZDF, the German network that airs Neo Magazine Royale, took the offending poem off the web amid the controversy but the channel says it "respects" Bohmermann and will support him in any legal defense against the Turkish government. The head of the network said deleting the show from its online video service was the easiest way to deal with public pressure while continuing to support the comedian.