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Merkel defends free speech but not Böhmermann

April 12, 2016

Angela Merkel says German prosecutors are reviewing Turkey's request to charge Jan Böhmermann. On March 31, the comedian made a bestiality joke about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on his TV show.

Bild-Kombo Böhmermann Merkel Erdogan

Though prosecutors are considering charges that could potentially jail a comedian for three years for insulting Recep Tayyip Erdogan (pictured right), Merkel said Germany would continue to protect artistic freedom.

The Turkish president himself has requested the charges, taking advantage of a German law that criminalizes insulting foreign leaders.

"Art and these fundamental values are valid regardless of any political problems we are discussing with each other, and that includes the refugee issue," Merkel said Tuesday, referring to a controversial deportation deal between the European Union and Turkey.

During a satirical bit in which he explained what was legal and illegal under German defamation laws, Jan Böhmermann (pictured left) read a "Defamation Poem" in which he called Erdogan "dumb, cowardly and uptight" and said the president engaged in sexual congress with various farmyard animals, and enjoyed oppressing minorities.

The segment aired March 31 on Böhmermann's TV show "Neo Magazin Royale" on public broadcaster ZDF, which later deleted it from its online media archive and YouTube.

Jan Böhmermann, ZDF Neo Magazin Royale,
The bawdy bit was meant to shock; now German functionaries must decide whether that constitutes satireImage: ZDF Neo Magazin Royale

Clearly 'deliberately offensive'

Fifty-four percent of respondents to a YouGov poll released Tuesday oppose a criminal investigation into Böhmermann's off-color commentary. Meanwhile, 41 percent of respondents said the chancellor had reacted inappropriately to the fallout from Böhmermann's joke.

Last week, Merkel told Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu that she considered the routine "deliberately offensive," which, many point out, was the point. Only six percent of respondents said they believed that Merkel reacted appropriately.

More than 100,000 people have signed an online petition demanding "Freedom for Böhmermann." A meme is also circulating on German social media, co-opting the "je suis" slogan that has been used as shorthand for solidarity since the 2015 murders at the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris.

Merkel's rival parties in the Bundestag have also come out against the chancellor, as have her former coalition allies the Free Democrats who currently hold no seats in the Bundestag. Left party leader Sahra Wagenknecht pointed out that Turkey has launched more than 1,800 cases against people and press accused of insulting the presidency since Erdogan assumed power in 2014. "If Merkel caves in in the Boehmermann case," Wagenknecht said, "he will be able to strike at will in Germany as well in the future."

Böhmermann's poem was a response to another controversy over a satirical song about Erdogan aired on March 17 by public broadcaster NDR. That clip, "Erdowie, Erdowo, Erdogan," took aim at the president for his alleged spending excesses and his government's crackdown on civil liberties. The German government defended freedom of expression after the Turkish government summoned the German ambassador over the song.

After officials removed Böhmermann's clip from the Internet, the comedian said he and ZDF had "demonstrated the limits of satire in Germany - finally!"

Böhmermann protected by police

On Tuesday, German police confirmed that the Cologne-based satirist had been placed under police protection.

"A patrol car is posted in front of (his) door," a police spokesman said.

According to German "Focus" magazine, investigators believe that Böhmermann and his family could be threatened by Erdogan's supporters in Germany.

The authorities conducted a threat assessment and acted because it could not "eliminate any possibility," the spokesman said on Tuesday.

The Cologne police is coordinating with other law-enforcement and security agencies, he added.

mkg/es (Reuters, AFP, dpa, EPD, AP)

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