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Germany revokes lese majeste law

June 2, 2017

Germany's parliament has voted to scrap its law protecting heads of state and governments from insults. The decision comes after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan tried to indict a prominent German satirist.

Erdogan gegen den Satiriker Böhmermann
Image: picture-alliance/Presidential Press Office/dpa/Spata

The Bundestag early Friday voted overwhelmingly in favor scrapping Germany's archaic lese majeste law, which criminalized insults directed at foreign heads of state and governments.

Also known as Paragraph 103 of Germany's criminal code, the law captured global headlines last year after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pressed charges against German satirist Jan Böhmermann over a so-called "smear poem."

Read more: German comedian Jan Böhmermann celebrates debut on US late night TV

The decision to scrap the law will come into effect on January 1, 2018.

Erdogan vs. Böhmermann

In March 2016, Böhmermann read out a poem on his weekly show on public broadcaster ZDF that included claims Erdogan watched child pornography and had sex with animals.

However, the satirist made clear that the poem's intention was to show the difference between legitimate criticism and genuine insults, a satirical response to the thousands of "lese majeste" cases the Turkish president was pursuing in Turkey and abroad.

Nevertheless, Erdogan asked the German government to authorize an investigation into Böhmermann. Chancellor Angela Merkel approved the request, to considerable criticism at home. Böhmermann could have faced up to three years in prison if found guilty.

Prosecutors ultimately dropped the case in November, saying there was insufficient evidence of wrongdoing.

Once the case was dropped, the German parliament's upper house, the Bundesrat, voted in December in favor of scrapping Paragraph 103, a decision that was followed by Merkel's cabinet the following month.

A satirical and controversial poem

Restrictions on Böhmermann's "poem" still apply

Despite being cleared of criminal charges, Böhmermann was still reprimanded by Hamburg's regional court, which ruled that certain parts of the poem could not be published or broadcast.

Read more: Böhmermann: How a German satirist sparked a freedom of speech debate

According to Germany's Federal Constitutional Court, artistic freedom is unconditional but not unlimited. Should it be found to infringe on an individual's personal freedoms, including those of a foreign national, the merits of each would need to be considered. Although satire generally enjoys a large degree of artistic freedom, the same constitutional considerations would apply.

Following the Hamburg court's decision, Böhmermann's lawyer said the court had failed to "adequately consider" the satirist's right to artistic freedom. A higher court is now hearing an appeal.

dm/sms (dpa, KNA, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung)