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Böhmermann could face private lawsuits, too

Mark HallamApril 27, 2016

The Turkish president filed his complaint with Angela Merkel weeks ago, successfully. Now, hundreds of German residents have lodged complaints about a poem treading a thin line between satire, stereotypes and slurs.

Jan Böhmermann
Image: Imago/Future Image

Besides a possible prosecution at the request of the Turkish government, hundreds of people in Germany have filed criminal complaints against comedian Jan Böhmermann. Böhmermann's lewd poem insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan might have been removed from broadcaster ZDF's website, but it's liable to be aired in a German court at some point in the future.

"The approximate number of criminal complaints is moving high in the three-figure region," Mainz's senior public prosecutor Andrea Keller told the local "Rheinische Post" daily on Wednesday.

Keller said it was too early to tell whether a court case against the comedian would go ahead. Her office wanted to question Böhmermann before making this decision.

A screenshot from German weekly talk show "Anne Will," named after its moderator, on April 24, 2016. The show's title translated as: "Dependant on Erdogan - too high a price for fewer refugees?"
The 'Böhmermann Affair' and broader Turkish ties have dominated German talk and panel shows all monthImage: NDR/Wolfgang Borrs

In the meantime, Keller said, Mainz prosecutors had received both Turkey's official complaint and the German government's authorization to investigate the allegations. All complaints against Böhmermann - be they from private persons, Erdogan himself, or his government in Ankara - would be "collated into one case and investigated." The prosecutors' office was still waiting for a statement from Erdogan's attorney.

The fragile feelings of Turkey's most powerful man

"To be a comedian, you need intelligence - and that kind of comedian which brought on this interesting issue, is bereft of any intellect himself," Turkey's ambassador to the EU, Selim Yenel, told DW's Conflict Zone this month. "Because what I've seen is bordering on racism, it's disgusting, and even the chancellor herself has agreed to turn it to the German courts ... I think that you have to make a distinction between satire, caricature, and insulting. This is insulting. If you have seen this video, it goes beyond any kind of freedom of speech. I don't want to say 'draw lines,' but we have to make a distinction between what is an insult and what is satire."

In a sense, however, Böhmermann's allies might argue he was making precisely this distinction, albeit in particularly poor taste.

Selim Yenel on Conflict Zone

The broadcast followed days after a separate satirical song about Erdogan prompted Turkey to call in its German ambassador to complain. As such, it seemed a response to Ankara's litigious and diplomatic efforts to protect its head of state's evidently fragile feelings, at home and abroad. Böhmermann introduced the segment by defending the "Extra 3" song, saying that this - under German law - was completely acceptable.

The 35-year-old then referred to his own upcoming tirade on air as a "smear poem," acknowledging that it would push the boundaries of German law and might not make the final edit of his "Neo Magazin Royale" weekly show. The set-up for the poem was a discussion with co-star Ralf Kabelka, playing Erdogan, about the coexistence of German laws guaranteeing artistic freedom and allowing prosecution for libel.

To make this point, Böhmermann then used a mixture of rhyming accusations - most of them absurd and well below the belt, with just a few a little closer to the nose as well. Sex with goats and other farm animals, sodomy, a child-porn habit and undersized genitalia all made the list, but so did physical abuse of Kurds and Christians, violence against women, and repression of minorities.

Days numbered for lèse-majesté law in Germany

In Turkey, insulting the president is a criminal offence - but one that was rarely pursued in court in the past. Since Erdogan switched from head of government to head of state almost two years ago, Turkish prosecutors have opened more than 1,800 cases on the basis of this law - against journalists, academics, cartoonists, even a 16-year-old schoolboy speaking at a student protest. In February this year, a Turkish man filed charges against his wife for comments she had made in their home.

Screenshot showing Jan Böhmermann during his recitation of a "smear poem" aimed at Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which is now the subject of litigation. The program aired on March 31, 2016 on ZDF Neo, the poem was later removed from the online archive version of the show.
Böhmermann recited the poem in front of an image of the Turkish flagImage: ZDF Neo Magazin Royale

Germany, too, has a law criminalizing insults against foreign heads of state. Chancellor Merkel agreed to allow Böhmermann to face a criminal investigation under paragraph 103 of the criminal code, but she also announced plans to abolish the law. Other political parties in the Bundestag are pushing for this process to be fast-tracked.

Merkel has since called it a "mistake" to refer to the Böhmermann poem as "knowingly offensive," but she has stuck by her decision to pass the complaint on to prosecutors in Mainz.

Böhmermann appeared once on "Neo Magazin Royale" after the contentious show aired, never once mentioning Turkey. The closest he came was the flippant question: "Right now, who wouldn't want to walk in my shoes?" He then announced that he would take a brief break from broadcasting - but has since said he will return to the airwaves on May 11.