Freedom of speech is not freedom to insult

boehmermanninjailIf his real objective was merely to get worldwide media attention, Jan Böhmermann has done the right thing.

In Germany, as elsewhere, there is increasing criticism of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose style of governance is more and more perceived as dictatorial. (This perception is very different from what it used to be not long ago. Back in 2004 he even was awarded the title of “European of the Year” by the readership of European Voice, a liberal weekly that has since been absorbed by POLITICO.) But in Germany more than elsewhere this criticism of the Turkish president raises delicate diplomatic issues, given the great number of ethnic Turks living in the country and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s controversial policy to put the management of Europe’s immigration problem into the hands of the Turkish government.

This does not prevent German media from criticising Erdogan. But Erdogan is not very tolerant of criticism. In fact, not tolerant at all – certainly not in Turkey (where critics are sent to jail), but also not abroad. When a private TV chain in Germany broadcast a group of comedians performing a song on the political situation in Turkey, he immediately intervened at the diplomatic level, calling for the prosecution of the comedians. The song was actually rather mediocre, not particularly witty – but it aptly pointed to human rights abuses in Turkey, and as such was doubtlessly covered by the freedom of expression, which is a fundamental right in Germany. Moreover, in Germany the Federal Government has no right to prohibit satirical songs – if at all, this is the task of the judiciary, which is independent of the government.

Erdogan’s intervention of course triggered the opposite effect of what he intended. There suddenly was a strong effect of solidarity with the comedians, boosting their mediocre piece into an unknown stratosphere of public attention. And everybody agreed that “in Germany there is freedom of speech, so everyone can say everything.”

This is where Mr. Böhmermann decided to jump on the band wagon. On his late-night comedy show at the state-owned TV chain ZDF, he performed his own comedy on Erdogan, entitled “defamatory critique”. It began with a half-serious statement about Erdogan needing to learn about freedom of speech and the limits thereof, and explaining that in Germany this freedom is understood to be wide but not limitless. So, for example, the mere throwing of sexually charged abuse on a person would not be covered by this freedom. And then Mr. Böhmermann said: “Just to provide you with an example of what would not be acceptable under German law, listen to this….” and he started with the recital of verses in which Erdogan was described as sexually obsessed, pedophile, a gang-rapist, sexually impotent (rather in contradiction to the other attributes), a sodomite (why do some people always accuse other people of homosexuality when they want to insult them?), and so forth…


Of course there was nothing factual in these accusations. Erdogan may be a dictator, but there is no reason to suspect he is a sexual pervert. The entire purpose of the show was to provoke and insult.

Böhmermann’s performance is somehow symptomatic for the deplorably low quality of contemporary satirists who believe that their glaring lack of wit can be compensated by a double quantity of coarse obscenities. Apparently the man believed that his status as a comedian on a state-owned TV chain meant that he would get away with whatever he did, or that his prior acknowledgement – (wink, wink) I am not really saying this, I just might say it if it were not forbidden… – could in some way serve to exempt what followed from the application of the law. But the opposite is true: he only showed he was perfectly aware that what he was going to do was a criminal offence – and then he did it. He did it in a particularly qualified manner, right in front of an audience many millions of TV spectators. There is absolutely no way in which someone could show his contempt for the law of the country (in this case Germany), or his belief to stand above that law, more openly than Mr. Böhmermann has done in this instance. There are no attenuating circumstances: this man must get the maximum penalty, which in this case could even be a prison sentence.

Certainly it would have been intelligent for the Turkish President to just ignore the incident. But Erdogan has preferred to request, as the German law provides for in such cases, the Federal Government to authorise the criminal persecution of Mr. Böhmermann. After some hesitation, Angela Merkel has granted that authorisation. She has, in this instance, made the right decision.