By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach
DRESDEN, Germany — On October 3 Dresden hosted the celebrations for the Day of German Unity, the reunification that was forged in 1990. Bundestag President Norbert Lammert expressed optimism and pride that “We are living together today in a way that generations before us could only dream of: in unity and justice and freedom.” A day later prosecutors announced a decision that made clear that “freedom” includes freedom of speech and opinion, freedom of the press and of artistic expression. It was not a good day for Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The case in question concerned comedian Jan Böhmermann, who was under investigation for having criminally insulted a foreign head of state (Erdogan) in a satirical poem that he read on television six months ago. The state prosecutors ruled that the case against him should be dropped on grounds that “punishable deeds could not be proven with the required certainty.” They stressed that it was questionable whether or not the so-called smear poem constituted an insult; to be an insult, one would need to have “the expression of a degrading, personal value judgment regarding a third party.” Böhmermann’s poem, which was full of vulgar language referring to sex with children and animals, as well as clichés about Turks, was — as he explicitly presented it to his TV audience — an example intended to demonstrate the difference between satire, which is lawful, and slander, which is not. (It goes without saying that he was illustrating the difference between Germany and Turkey regarding press freedom.) The prosecution accepted this concept, arguing that, in context, the contested phrases were so “exaggerated and absurd” that no one could seriously think of them as critical of Erdogan, or as “seriously intended” to apply. Rather, the satirist had made clear that “it was a joke.”
The joke’s on you
In a personal statement Böhmermann expressed his happiness that the prosecution had so ruled, and that they had realized that he is “an unserious prankster” who retails nonsense “as part of his job.” Most important was the fact that it had been “officially established that this is about a joke,” he stated. At the same time, he specified that his “juridical seminar on the theme of smear criticism” was not an accident, but had been carefully preplanned. He expressed his gratitude to the national television channel ZDF which backed him up.
That said, Böhmermann went to the political core of the issue: compared to what intellectuals and artists in Turkey are allowed or not allowed to do, he said, “the fuss made about the ‘Böhmermann affair’ is a big, sad joke.” In Turkey, in fact, anyone who steps outside the limits of critical opinion can be jailed, without a chance of a fair trial, and can be forced to hand in a passport so as to prevent travel abroad. He even mentioned the fact that German citizens of Turkish background are often afraid to speak openly in telephone conversations with relatives in Turkey, for fear of repression. This is bull, he said, “and that is the issue.” In Germany, freedom of opinion and artistic expression are guaranteed. Summing up the political gist of the matter, he said, “When a joke provokes a state crisis, then it is not a problem of the joke, but of the state.”