Activists have long criticized the Turkish government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for being thin-skinned in the face of criticism and for unfairly targeting journalists. Now a television host is facing potential jail time for reading a satirical poem about Erdogan that suggested the Turkish leader engaged in bestiality, among other things.
This case has a twist, however. The host is German. And the jail time he faces would be in Germany.
Jan Boehmermann, a comedian and writer known for his acerbic style, read the poem March 31 on his satirical talk show "Neo Magazin Royale," which is broadcast by German public broadcaster ZDF. Sitting in front of a Turkish flag and a small framed portrait of Erdogan, Boehmermann recited the poem, which suggested the president had sex with goats and that he also loved to "repress minorities, kick Kurds and beat Christians while watching child porn," Deutsche Welle reports.
Addressed directly to Erdogan, the poem also included subtitles for Turkish viewers.
Boehmermann's decision to recite the poem hadn't come out of the blue. Last month, Turkey had summoned Germany's ambassador to complain about a song aired by a rival satire program on another German public broadcaster, NDR. That video, “Erdowie, Erdowo, Erdogan,” had shown protesters clashing with Turkish forces. “Equal rights for women: beaten up equally,” the song went.
Before reading his poem, Boehmermann said that the previous video was defensible under Germany's concept of freedom of speech. Then, as he began to read, he suggested that his own "abusive" poem would not be covered by this concept.
The cruder nature of Boehmermann's poem seemed designed to ruffle feathers. ZDF swiftly deleted the video of the poem from its website and has combed YouTube to remove copied footage.
A spokesperson for German Chancellor Angela Merkel released a statement Monday that condemned the poem, explaining that "satire takes place within our country’s press and media freedom, which — as you know — is not unlimited."
Turkey's Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu welcomed Merkel's comments on Tuesday but said that any insult to Erdogan was an insult to all Turkish people's honor. It would not go without a "response," Davutoglu explained. Such comments likely rang alarm bells for anyone who follows Turkish politics: Turkish law bars insults to the president, and at least 1,845 cases have been opened under this law since Erdogan became president in 2014, according to the Associated Press.
Yet it is German law, rather than Turkish law, that could land Boehmermann in prison. On Wednesday, Gerd Deutschler, a prosecutor in the city of Mainz, told reporters that Boehmermann was being investigated and could potentially face charges under section 103 of the German penal code. That section states that "whosoever insults a foreign head of state ... shall be liable to imprisonment not exceeding three years or a fine." Prosecutors have said that at least 20 "private individuals" have filed complaints against Boehmermann, Reuters reports.
It remains unclear whether Boehmermann will be charged under section 103. While the Berlin-based newspaper Tagesspiegel reports that an internal legal review conducted by the Foreign Office found it was "highly probable" the comedian had committed a crime, Turkey has not made a request for prosecution.
But there are significant calls for action from supporters of the Turkish president. Mikdat Karaalioglu, European editor of the pro-Erdogan newspaper Sabah, writes that Boehmermann's jokes showed "the terrible dimension of Turkish hatred in Germany." Fans of Erdogan have begun using a hashtag and memes on social media in a bid to defend the president's honor. Over the weekend, a small crowd had gathered outside of ZDF's Istanbul office, throwing eggs and chanting.
"We were the target of wrath," a representative of ZDF told Tagesspiegel.
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