Germany in Free Speech Debate Over Satire Show's "Slander Poem" Criticizing Turkish President

Jan Bohmermann
Courtesy of ZDF

Comedian Jan Bohmermann has been placed under police protection following a live show in which he read out a “slander poem” criticizing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

In Germany, land of high culture, poetry rarely causes a stir.

But a little rhyme read out live on German television has ignited a furious legal and ethical debate over freedom of speech and what, if any, the limits are to political satire.

Jan Bohmermann, Germany's equivalent to Last Week Tonight's John Oliver, read out the poem on his weekly satirical show Neo Magazin Royale on German public broadcaster ZDF on March 31. It was directed at Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and, in a cadence similar to a children's nursery rhyme, Bohmermann called the Turkish leader, among many other things, “a goat f—er” who “kicks Kurds and slaps Christians while watching kiddie porn.”

Bohmermann titled the poem "Schmahkritik," an legal term that roughly translates to “slander” or “defamation.” The poem was a show of solidarity with another German comedy show (NDR's extra3) that, on March 17, had mocked Erdogan with song that pointed out human rights abuses in Turkey. In response, Ankara summoned the German ambassador to explain why the show aired the song and reportedly called for the offending video to be removed from the Internet.

"Dear Erdogan, in Germany, in Europe, these things are protected by freedom of speech, press freedom, freedom of opinion ... our constitution,” said Bohmermann on his show, before adding, "Satire, art and jokes: those are allowed. And then there is ... slander.”

As an example of what slander looks like, Bohmermann read the poem, repeatedly stopping to confirm with his sidekick that such "defamation" would "never be allowed on German TV."

Bohmermann's poem comes amid fierce debate within Germany surrounding a "refugee swap" deal the European Union has signed with Turkey. Critics of the deal, which will see the EU pay Turkey to take back refugees who crossed through Turkey to enter Europe, say it has made Europe too dependent on Erdogan, a man infamous for cracking down of freedom of speech in his own country.

Following the reading of the poem, Turkey filed a formal request for the German government to prosecute Bohmermann under rarely used paragraph 103 of the German Criminal Code, which states it is illegal to insult a foreign head of state. The crime carries a maximum jail term of three years, which can be increased to five years if the court finds the slander was deliberate. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said prosecutors are reviewing the Turkish request.

Last week, Merkel told the Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu that she thought the poem was “deliberately offensive.” ZDF pulled the video off its website, saying it “didn’t live up to the requirements that ZDF makes for the quality of satire programs.” Taking to Facebook, Bohmermann commented: “We've found the limit for satire in Germany. Finally!”

But things were just getting started. Public prosecutors in Mainz, the German city where ZDF is based, said  on Tuesday that hundreds of criminal complaints have been filed against the network and Bohmermann himself. President Erdogan, in his capacity as a private person, has filed a defamation suit against the comedian. This means a legal case is likely to go ahead, whatever the German government decides to do.

On Tuesday, police in Cologne, where Bohmermann lives, said they are providing police protection for the satirist and his family, amid reports of possible reprisals from Erdogan supporters in Germany. Bohmermann canceled his upcoming Neo Royale program, scheduled for Thursday, April 14.

Merkel on Tuesday, perhaps in response to polls that show strong public opposition to a criminal investigation against Bohmermann, reiterated that artistic freedom and freedom of speech “are fundamental values” in Germany and would remain so, “regardless of any political problems we are discussing with (Turkey) and that includes the refugee issue.”

This isn't the first time Bohmermann has found himself in the middle of a major political debate. Last year he caused controversy by claiming he had digitally manipulated a video clip in which Greece's then finance minister Yanis Varoufakis appears to flip off the German people. The clip was shown on a well-known German talk show and became the center of a huge media debate. It later emerged that the video was real. Bohmermann's “confession” was intended to mock the puerile tone of the media debate surrounding the Greek debt crisis.  

This time around, the German media, mostly, have gotten behind Bohmermann. Leading German tabloid Das Bild has called for solidarity with the satirist and fellow comedians, including Didi Hallervorden and Dieter Nuhr, have backed his right to offend. “I think Bohmermann's poem was childish,” Nuhr told German magazine Der Spiegel, but suggested if Erdogan felt insulted he should “write his own poem.”

The columnist Georg Diez, however, writing for Die Welt, criticized Bohmermann's tone, calling it “coarse and bellowing” and noting, as did German journalist, Hakan Tanriverdi, that the poem uses racist language to describe Erdogan, language that could be judged offensive to all Turkish people.

But, Diez insists, the latest Bohmermann affair is actually a fake battle.

“Jan Bohmermann won't go to jail and he won't have to pay a fine. The freedom of our society is not in danger,” he concludes.

You can see Bohmermann recite his poem in the video below (in German).