Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Friday that Germany had accepted a request from Turkey to seek prosecution of a German comedian who read out a crude poem about Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on German television.
Erdogan had demanded that Germany press charges against comedian Jan Boehmermann after he mocked the Turkish leader in a show on German public broadcaster ZDF on March 31, suggesting that he hits girls, watches child pornography and engages in bestiality.
It is illegal under German criminal code to insult a foreign leader, but the law leaves it to the government to decide whether to authorise prosecutors to pursue such cases.
This has put Merkel an awkward position. The driving force behind a controversial European Union-Turkey migrant deal, she has already come under fire for ignoring human rights and press freedom violations in Turkey in an effort to secure its cooperation.
“There were different opinions between the coalition partners – the conservatives and the SPD [Social Democrats],” Merkel told reporters at the Chancellery in Berlin.
”The outcome is that the German government will give the authorisation in the current case,” she added, stressing that this was not a decision about the merits of the prosecution’s case against Boehmermann.
Merkel’s announcement sparked sharp criticism from the SPD, her centre-left coalition partner, which was opposed to Turkey’s request.
“This was the wrong decision in my view,” said Thomas Oppermann, leader of the SPD in parliament. “Prosecution of satire due to ‘lèse-majesté’ does not fit with modern democracy.”
Anton Hofreiter, parliamentary leader of the opposition Greens, said Merkel must now “live with the accusation that the deal with Turkey is more important to her than defending freedom of the press”.
Sahra Wagenknecht of the far-left Linke accused Merkel of kowtowing to the “Turkish despot” Erdogan.
‘Merkel is walking quite a difficult diplomatic tightrope’
Boehmermann, an impish-looking 35-year-old, is known for pushing the boundaries of satire. Last year he claimed to have manipulated a video of Greece’s then-finance minister Yanis Varoufakis in which he is shown giving the middle finger – known as the “Stinkefinger” in German – to Berlin for its tough stance in the debt crisis. The video infuriated German politicians.
The cult comedian made clear before reciting the poem about Erdogan that he was intentionally going beyond what German law allowed.
ZDF has since removed a video of the poem from its website. But Boehmermann has received backing from prominent German artists and a poll for Focus magazine showed 82 percent viewed the poem as defensible.
He is reportedly under police protection and cancelled his last show on ZDF.
In giving her statement, Merkel pressed Turkey – a candidate country for European Union membership – to uphold the values of freedom of expression, the press and art.
She justified the decision to accept the Turkish request by pointing to the close and friendly relationship Berlin shares with Ankara, referring to the three million people with Turkish roots who live in Germany, the strong economic ties between the countries and their cooperation as NATO allies.
But the Association of German Journalists (DJV) said Merkel had sent the “wrong signal” to the Turkish government and added that her references to violations of the right to freedom of press and opinion in Turkey had not made up for that.
A Turkish group called the Union of European Turkish Democrats, which has posted videos online supporting Erdogan, filed a complaint with Austria’s media watchdog on Friday over Austrian newspaper Oesterreich reprinting parts of Boehmermann’s poem under the headline, ‘Is this confused poem art or a scandal?’
Merkel said the German government planned to remove the section of the criminal code that requires it to grant permission for prosecution in such cases.