Germany Weighs Action Against Comedian Over Erdogan Satire

  • Turkey asks Germany to prosecute comedian over lewd poem
  • Legal request compounds debate over refugee deal with Turkey

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government will consider a request from Turkey to prosecute a satirist who derided President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last month, escalating a dispute that’s sparked a debate over freedom of expression in Germany and threatens to undermine a European accord over refugees.

The furor concerns a comedian with public broadcaster ZDF, Jan Boehmermann, who two weeks ago recited a lewd poem directed at Erdogan in an effort to test the boundaries of acceptable satire under a law that protects foreign heads of state from libel. Turkey’s request and German government consent are preconditions for prosecutors to continue any probe of this particular case.

“The contents of this request and whatever further action taken will be carefully considered,” Merkel’s chief spokesman, Steffen Seibert, told reporters on Monday in Berlin, saying the government’s assessment will take a few days. “Freedom of expression, the arts and sciences is in the chancellor’s view a self-evident greater good -- and non-negotiable inwardly or outwardly.”

Boehmermann’s poem, which plumbed the depths of bawdiness, was a response to the Turkish government’s complaints over an earlier German television satire criticizing Erdogan’s human-rights record. Merkel’s government at the end of March rejected the initial criticism from Turkey and news magazine Der Spiegel ran a cover story lampooning Erdogan as well. Seibert last week called ZDF’s most recent invective “intentionally hurtful.” 

The satirist committed a “heavy crime against humanity” by insulting Erdogan, Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said. “No one has right to insult” the president, Kurtulmus told reporters in the southeastern province of Sanliurfa Monday.

The spat spilled into the controversy over Europe’s accord with Turkey, the centerpiece of Merkel’s response to the region’s biggest migration crisis since World War II. The pact, which entails sending refugees seeking illegal passage to Greece back to Turkey, has been criticized by human rights groups as impractical and legally suspect and denounced elsewhere in Europe because of Erdogan’s efforts to censure the press and squelch dissent.

ZDF removed the video clip of Boehmermann from its website two days after it aired, saying the poem had crossed a boundary of acceptable satire. Boehmermann’s lawyer Christian Schertz didn’t immediately reply to an e-mail seeking comment.

The German comedian received support over the weekend from Axel Springer SE Chief Executive Officer Mathias Doepfner, who called Boehmermann’s poem “a piece of art” that effectively targets Erdogan’s “illiberal” reaction to satire.

“I laughed out loud,” Doepfner said in an open letter published Sunday by Bild newspaper, which is owned by Axel Springer.

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