This article was written by ESFL local coordinator and blogging team member Marcus Rumler.
‘What may satire do? – Everything!’, German novelist Kurt Tucholsky once said. This was over 70 years ago, but the discussion about whether there should be limits to political satire or not, was very much alive in Germany this spring. In his comedy show Neo Magazin Royale, German comedian Jan Böhmermann read a poem named ‘Schmäkritik’, which was filled with insults and profanity, but also some legitimate criticism, against the Turkish president Recep Tayip Erdogan. While he was reading the poem, Turkish subtitles were displayed. In the show, he explained that he was trying to show the difference between political satire and so-called ‘Schmähkritik’, which roughly translates to ‘abusive criticism’. This part, however, was not accompanied by subtitles. The ‘abusive criticism’ is a criminal offence in Germany, even more so when directed against a foreign head of state. This is due to an old, controversial law going back to the 19th century, the now infamous Article 103.
Mr. Böhmermann’s poem was a reaction to another German political satire show, extra3, that had featured a song about Mr Erdogan (‘Erdowie, Erdowo, Erdogan’) a week earlier, which was openly criticising the Turkish President for his policies. Erdogan complained to the German government about this, to which the government replied that extra3’s satirical song was protected by freedom of speech laws in Germany. Erdogan also summoned the German ambassador to Turkey. Jan Böhmermann’s poem contained explicit allusions to this controversy.
The aftermath of Böhmermann reading his poem was rather harsh: President Erdogan declared that he was going to sue Jan Böhmermann in a German court, referring to the controversial article 103. It was now up to Chancellor Angela Merkel to decide whether to allow indictment of Mr Böhmermann or not. In the German public, more and more people called for an abolition of said article 103, and for Angela Merkel to not allow persecution of the comedian. Many people all over the political spectrum were sympathetic to Jan Böhmermann, also because President Erdogan is extremely unpopular in Germany. In the end, Mrs Merkel decided to allow the indictment of Jan Böhmermann, but also stated that she was preparing to remove the unpopular article 103 by 2018. So, in a way, the results of this affair are a mixed bag: right now, Erdogan gets what he wants, but on the other hand, a freedom of speech restriction will be removed.