Jan Boehmermann wins a defender.

Photographer: Britta Pedersen/AFP/Getty Images

Merkel Gets Stuck Defending a Bad Joke

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Jan Boehmermann, the host of "Neo Magazin Royale," a satirical television show, has put Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany in a bind. On March 31, he used his late-night program on the state-owned ZDF network to recite a poem laced with obscenities and insults directed at President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey.

The reaction was swift. The Turkish leader demanded that the comedian be prosecuted for violating Germany's criminal code, which prohibits insults targeting a foreign state or its representatives. In addition, Germany has hate speech laws, and the verse could qualify as racist because, as the journalist Hakan Tanriverdi pointed out, it contained many of the poisonous German cliches about Turks, the second biggest immigrant group in the country. Boehmermann also may have run afoul of  a law against "abusive criticism," which the German Constitutional Court defined as comments aimed at "the defamation of a person." 

For Merkel, there could hardly be a worse time for a diplomatic set-to with Turkey. The chancellor is working closely with Erdogan to curb the flow of mostly Syrian refugees from Turkey to northern Europe, mainly to Germany. She initiated a deal that requires migrants who cross into Europe illegally to be sent back to Turkey, and for an equal number of refugees from Turkish camps to be resettled in the European Union. The Turkish leader also received assurances that the EU would move faster toward visa-free travel for his citizens. Merkel's CDU party remains strong in the polls, but its popularity is eroding because of the governing coalition's handling of the migrant crisis. A working relationship with Turkey on the refugees could be essential for Merkel to keep power and secure her legacy.

That may explain why Merkel's  first reaction to the Boehmermann affair was to tell the Turkish prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, that she doesn't approve of the "deliberately wounding text."

Although no action has been taken in response to Turkey's formal demand for criminal punishment for the satirist, German prosecutors opened  an investigation of the poem. Boehmermann, meanwhile, was placed under police protection. The German authorities, distasteful as they might find the comedian's puerile poetry, emphatically don't want a Charlie Hebdo-style disaster on their hands.

The incident has generated broad support for Boehmermann in Germany. Matthias Doepfner, chief executive of Germany's biggest news publisher, Axel Springer, wrote an open letter to the satirist saying that the poem had caused him to laugh out loud. He wrote of the German tradition of irreverence and the importance of the freedom of artistic expression. And he criticized the German government for "pussyfooting." 

Public opinion is firmly on Boehmermann's side. A YouGov poll released Tuesday showed that 77 percent of Germans didn't want the comedian to be prosecuted, 68 percent opposed Merkel's semi-apology to Davutoglu -- and 48 percent found the poem itself "reasonable," while just 29 percent held the opposite view. A hashtag emerged on Twitter, #JesuisBöhmi, after "Je suis Charlie," the slogan that was used to express solidarity after terrorists attacked Charlie Hebdo last year.

Now, what could have been just a silly joke has put Merkel between the hammer and the anvil -- an enraged Erdogan and a German public that doesn't care much about his feelings. Stefan Kuzmany wrote in Der Spiegel that Merkel's initial reaction might mean she's "losing her grip on power." 

But Merkel has never shied away from revising her position if necessary, and on Tuesday, she said she was committed to Germany's liberal values, even when the exercise of these freedoms caused pain to a valued partner. "Art and these fundamental values are valid regardless of any political problems we are discussing with each other, and that includes the refugee issue," she said.

She has always made decisions on the basis of values rather than expediency, the very trait that made her politically vulnerable in the first place. By deliberately crafting the crude poem, Boehnermann may have been looking for limits to Germany's freedom of speech. He may have his answer: In today's Germany, prosecuting an artist to please an angry authoritarian leader, no matter how useful and important, is out of the question.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net