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Böhmermann vs. Erdogan: Criminal satire? Not in Germany

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Susanne Spröer
October 5, 2016

Freedom of expression and art are high values in Germany. The charges against comedian Jan Böhmermann for his "defamatory poem" have been dropped. And that's exactly the right decision, says DW's Susanne Spröer.

Erdogan and Jan Böhmermann
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Presidential Press Office/O. Spata

Yes, Jan Böhmermann's satirical poem, broadcast during his show in March on German public television, was vulgar. His words hit way below the belt, including allusions to bestiality. His poem also included absurd and unfounded stereotypes of the Turks.

Böhmermann was vulgar - but the charges had to be dropped

Prosecutors in Mainz spent half a year investigating the case to determine whether Jan Böhmermann had insulted the Turkish president, as a German law bans defaming representatives of international governments.

Now they have decided to drop the case. Böhmermann will not need to go to court. And that's a good thing.

DW's Susanne Spröer, head of the online culture department
DW's Susanne Spröer heads the online culture department

How can this be? Isn't his poem deliberately filled with offensive content? I personally find parts of it simply disgusting.

But it can be. Or, even: That's how it has to be - and no other way. The poem that was part of a sketch in the satire show "Neo Magazin Royale" does not fall under section 103, the German law banning "lèse-majesté," or insulting a foreign head of state (an archaic passage that is to be abolished in Germany anyway).

Clever satirical twist: The following content is forbidden

Prosecutors could not establish sufficient proof that the comedian deliberately intended to insult. In the introduction to his poem, Böhmermann warned of the fact that he was about to trespass the usual boundaries of satire. What will follow, he said, is forbidden - adding that defamatory content of that type is punishable by law and could be removed from the program. That's exactly what happened: The broadcaster, ZDF, removed the sketch from its online archive. The provocation was planned and intentional.

These exaggerations and provocations, deliberately crossing borders as satire is known to do best, worked as a refined game of confusion. Such satire might lead some to choke on a laugh, admittedly.

The sketch referred to the events following the broadcast of a previous piece of satire from another TV program, a song criticizing excessive censorship and suppression of free speech in Turkey. (Incidentally, this criticism came a half a year before the attempted coup in the country - the situation has become even worse since.) The song, which was beyond a doubt acceptable satire in Germany, led the Turkish president to order the German ambassador to delete the video - without success.

This inspired Böhmermann to push the satire even further. His aim was not to insult Erdogan personally - but to criticize his policies.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan was offended by Jan Böhmermann's poem Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Suna

The 'defamatory poem' is satire - what else could it be?

State prosecutors saw it that way, too. Their decision clearly supported freedom of expression and art in Germany.

That's a good thing. Even tasteless satire remains satire - and that is not a crime in Germany, unlike in Turkey, where President Erdogan is prosecuting journalists, artists and political opponents, and where freedom of expression no longer exists. DW experienced this first hand as well, as footage of an interview with a Turkish minister was recently confiscated by the country's officials.

Even though the final decision in the Böhmermann case is still pending (a regional court in Hamburg needs to decide in November on another civil case related to the poem), the decision of the state prosecutors in Mainz is an important signal to the despots of the world.

In Germany, we are allowed to have a wide range of opinions and these can be expressed freely through artistic means, even when that doesn't necessarily please everyone (just like the "defamatory poem" didn't please me).

To quote Rosa Luxemburg: "Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently." That's what defines our democracy.

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