It all started with a joke.
Last week, German comedian Jan Böhmermann aired a segment on his show in which he read an openly offensive poem, directed at Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in which he accused him of bestiality and other unsavory things.
The Turkish politician previously criticized a much less controversial satirical segment that aired on another German channel. But Böhmermann went too far for Erdogan. The Turkish president officially filed charges against the German comedian on Monday — using a little-known German law.
But it could cost German Chancellor Angela Merkel her job, according to some commentators.
Respected German weekly Der Spiegel argued in its lead story Tuesday that Merkel — among the most powerful women in the world — "could stumble" over the scandal that started as a laugh. Merkel has survived far worse crises. So why is the Böhmermann controversy so dangerous to her office, according to German media?
Insulting a head of state is a criminal offense in Germany, and it's up to Merkel to decide whether Erdogan's case can be heard in German courts. And here's where it gets really complicated.
Merkel and the European Union recently negotiated a refugee deal with Turkey that arguably saved her chancellorship, and — for the moment, at least — greatly decreased the influx of refugees and migrants.
But Merkel has also made clear in the past that she strongly supports freedom of the press. Erdogan has been accused of shutting down newspapers and threatening journalists at home. By filing charges against Böhmermann, who works for one of the country's main public television stations, ZDF, Erdogan has taken his fight abroad.
He also puts Merkel into an awkward position. If she accepts Böhmermann to be charged for insulting Erdogan, critics will accuse her of sacrificing press freedom.
But if she refused to accept the charges Erdogan put forward, she could threaten German-Turkish relations at the worst possible time, when a crucial refugee deal is being implemented. If Turkey withdrew from the deal as a consequence, it would dash hopes of European nations of finding a way out of the migrant crisis.
"The whole country now watches, as Erdogan embarrasses the chancellor and parades her like in a circus ring," Der Spiegel commented Tuesday.
The current scandal is also considered a delayed consequence of Merkel's decision to allow hundreds of thousands of Syrians into the country last fall.
Her policies have made her so politically vulnerable that even a joke could now turn into a serious threat to her office — partially because Merkel has so far refused to clearly side with Böhmermann and those arguing that a potential trial is a threat to freedom of the press. The chancellor even called the comedian's poem "deliberately offending" — a comment that some interpreted as support for Erdogan.
"The scandal undermines her credibility and exposes her failed migration policies," German news channel n-tv said Tuesday.
Tensions have risen for days. On Monday, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said that the poem — which has since been deleted from ZDF's website — was not only an insult against Erdogan but against all Turks.
"That is why the Republic of Turkey demands that this impertinent man is immediately punished for insulting a president, within the scope of German law," Kurtulmus was quoted as saying. He went on to call the poem a "serious crime against humanity" that had "crossed all lines of indecency."
Böhmermann could face jail time or a fine if a German court found him guilty. Other prominent members of the public, including Mathias Döpfner, head of the country's influential Axel Springer publishing company, have already declared support for the comedian. Böhmermann has deliberately provoked the public in the past and might even have expected to face a trial.
For Merkel, though, his joke is starting to create real problems.