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Germany mulls Turkey's request to prosecute comic

April 11, 2016

The German government has said it is examining Turkey's formal request to prosecute comedian Jan Böhmermann over a crude poem about the Turkish president. The case has sparked a fierce debate on freedom of speech.

German comedian Jan Böhmermann
Image: Imago/Future Image/U. Glockmann

A formal diplomatic protest from Ankara to Berlin over a TV comedian who read an insulting poem about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is being reviewed, announced a spokesman on Monday.

"The Turkish embassy, in connection with the ZDF broadcast 'Neo Magazin Royale,' sent a cable to the Foreign Ministry," Chancellor Angela Merkel's government spokesman Steffen Seibert said. "That is a formal request from the Turkish side for a prosecution in connection with comments made in this broadcast."

A decision from the Chancellery, Foreign Ministry and Justice Ministry should arrive in the coming days on whether a probe under section 103 of the criminal code - insulting organs or representatives of foreign states - could continue.

The charge can carry a sentence of up to three years in prison for Jan Böhmermann.

"The content of this cable and the way forward will now be carefully examined by the government," Seibert said at a press conference. "It will take a few days. I can't and don't want to anticipate the results of this examination."

He emphasized Merkel's high regard of free speech, "regardless of whether the chancellor personally finds something artistically successful or repellent, tasteful or tasteless."

The EU Commission has also distanced itself from the Böhmermann case, calling the case "a matter for national authorities," explained Seibert.

German prosecutors already opened a preliminary probe against Böhmermann last week over his so-called "Defamatory Poem," which described Erdogan having sex with goats and sheep.

Böhmermann had aired the poem after Turkish officials called in Germany's ambassador to protest a satirical song aired elsewhere that had lampooned Erdogan in much tamer language.

Böhmermann's "Neo Magazin Royale" show is immensely popular with young viewers and his satirical political videos have garnered millions of views on YouTube.

Comedy or crime?

The Böhmermann case has sparked a fierce debate in Germany about freedom of speech, highlighting the tricky gray area of defamation laws. Numerous comedians and media have made statements or tweeted their support of Böhmermann.

Mathias Döpfner, CEO of the German media group Axel Springer, wrote an open letter to the comedian published in the German newspaper "Die Welt." He defended Böhmerman, saying the poem was "a satire about dealing with tasteless satire."

German cabaret artist Dieter Hallervorden also released his own lyrical jab at the Turkish leader with a song called "Erdogan, report me, too!"

Former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis - who himself has been the butt of many jokes by Böhmermann - also tweeted his disapproval, saying Europe "is losing its humor."

Turkish comedian on trial

Turkey's most popular comedian, Cem Yilmaz, also went on trial on Monday for allegedly insulting a provincial governor in a series of tweets. The actor and comedian criticized the governor over his role in the death of a mathematics teacher - who had been berated by the governor and died a week later of a heart attack at a protest.

"Crushing a man by using the power of an official position and fatally breaking his heart... What a shame that the poor teacher died. May you rise to even more important positions, Mr. Governor!" read one of Yilmaz's tweets.

Numerous similar court cases have raised concerns over freedom of expression in Turkey, and Erdogan has also been accused of muzzling the press, NGOs and academics.

rs/kms (AP, AFP, dpa, epd, Reuters)