The cover of a German satire magazine with an edited picture of Pope Benedict has triggered a broad discussion in Germany: What are the boundaries of satire?
The controversial front page shows Benedict XVI with a yellow stain covering his white cassock below the waist. The headline is "Hallelujah in the Vatican: The leak has been found." On the back of the issue, the pope is pictured from behind. This time with a brown stain. The text reads: "Another leak found."
For now at least, the distribution of the issue of the Titanic magazine has been stopped. A Hamburg court banned the magazine from publishing the images and from further distributing the issue. But the case has sparked a wide debate over the boundaries of satire.
A question of style
Exaggeration, polemics and distorted facts – those are all stylistic devices of satire. Sharp and polemic satire is ethically permissible, says Edda Kremer of the Germany's Presserat, an umbrella organization of publishers and journalists' unions.
Personal rights though have to be respected, however, says Hendrik Zörner, spokesman of the German journalists union DJV. "There are of course boundaries – for instance you mustn't violate a person's privacy sphere."
"But this cover picture is not about the person of Benedict XVI but about him as a representative of the Vatican bureaucracy," he says
The controversial stain
The editorial team at Titanic has been unfazed by the incident. "It's not everyday that you get a letter from the pope, so we actually celebrated this a bit. We had champagne, a small catholic glass each," says Leo Fischer, editor in chief of the magazine.
He claims to not get what the fuss is all about. "If those stains are in fact – as we suggest – from a soft drink that was spilled out of exuberance at a party celebrating the end of the Vatileaks affair – then surely it is possible to show such a picture."
Fischer says that ideally they'd want to settle this matter quietly, and man to man. "We've invited the pope to come for a private talk on this. We've invited him to come to our editorial offices to talk about everything." He says he would offer him coffee – or a soft drink.
But that's hardly something that Matthias Kopp, press spokesman of the German Bishops' Conference, can find amusing. "Disgusting. I think that there are boundaries to what is tasteful and boundaries to what is acceptable satire. This is a disgusting violation of privacy."
Media and satire magazines should have a certain level of respect for religion, Kopp argues. "If the pope, who after all is 85 years old, is depicted as being incontinent, then this is a violation of privacy. It is absolutely unacceptable."
Christian Weisner of the Catholic reform movement We are Church agrees that the pictures are tasteless. "For a Catholic, seeing these pictures does hurt, but the church or the pope should not feel like martyrs because of that.
"This stained robe is a message and it says that the church is not always innocent," Weisner says.
"Press freedom is valued as very important, but from experience we know that religious satire is problematic and often polarizing," says Kremer.
By Wednesday lunchtime, some 40 complaints had been made to the Presserat. "People feel that their religious feeling has been violated and they also believe that the Pope's human dignity is being violated by that picture," Kremer says.
The discussion about the cover picture is also spreading across online social networking sites. "I'm glad to see that insults, defamation and humiliation can no longer hide behind the cloak of satire," writes one user on Facebook.
Others are more critical. "The pope is violating my religious feelings by claiming that a magazine that I religiously adore might be fallible. What a conman!" another user writes on Twitter.
So far there's no clear victor in the matter – but Titanic on Wednesday celebrated somewhat of a success. The magazine says that subscriptions have "skyrocketed," since the case first began to get media attention on Tuesday.
Author: Rayna Breuer / ai
Editor: Charlotte Chelsom-Pill