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Opinion

Opinion: Breaking taboos as a compulsory act

Satirist Jan Böhmermann's abusive criticism of Turkish President Erdogan was neither necessary, nor brave. Instead, it was cheap self-promotion, says DW editor Christoph Hasselbach.

Just how far are satirists prepared to go in the name of freedom? Jan Böhmermann's verses criticizing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are among the most primitive and vulgar lines that have ever been spoken on a German public broadcasting program. By the way, German households are required by law to pay for this "basic provision." Had the poem solely taken Erdogan's policies to task, there would have been no reason to criticize it. But what was Böhmermann's series of personal fantasy insults, without any grounds whatsoever (fucks goats, stinks, beats little girls), actually supposed to achieve? Were they simply transgressions for the sake of transgression?

In no way does it help that Böhmermann's abusive criticism was a reaction to the fact that Erdogan was so publicly upset about a much less harsh German satirical sketch that had aired previously. It also does not help that Böhmermann announced that he was about to do something illegal. Am I allowed, for instance, to incite against foreigners if I announce that I am doing so in the name of satire?

Double standard

It is puzzling that many of the same journalists who tend to get very upset about any criticisms of Turks in Germany have no problem when a colleague insults a very specific Turk in Ankara in the most tasteless, base and personal way, while pandering to the worst anti-Muslim sentiments in society. And how can one complain about the brutalization of the discourse surrounding the subject of immigration, then turn around and cheer in this instance?

Hasselbach Christoph Kommentarbild App

DW's Christoph Hasselbach

In any case, this has nothing to do with courage. Turkish satirists would land in jail for more harmless criticism of the president. Böhmermann, on the other hand, has little to fear in the safety of Germany. Even if he could theoretically face three years in jail for insulting a foreign head of state, it is doubtful that he will receive any punishment.

Quite the opposite, the media have elevated him to near-martyr status, now that Erdogan has demanded criminal consequences and has begun putting pressure on the German government to bring criminal charges.

Even German politicians, who are now being forced to deal with the aftershock of Böhmermann's performance on a political and diplomatic level, are trying to avoid any confrontation with media outlets over the limits of freedom of expression as regards satire. Those on the left of the political spectrum are actually rubbing their hands in delight over Chancellor Angela Merkel's current dilemma.

Not a question of reason of state

Luckily, the question of what German satirists are allowed to do is not a question of "raison d' état." Therefore it is a good sign that politicians are exhibiting caution. And just as luckily, politicians do not decide what the limits of satire are, and courts these days are also cautious when such cases land before them.

But satirists and journalists should ask themselves this: If breaking taboos simply becomes a compulsory act, then it is really just about adolescent self-adulation. And something is wrong when applause for such behavior becomes automatic. Questioning oneself never hurts. Satire is allowed to do a lot, but not everything.

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