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Germany reacts to pending defamation case against comedian

Gaby Reucher / ct
April 11, 2016

As Jan Böhmermann awaits a decision as to whether he will be prosecuted for a satirical poem about Turkey's President Erdogan, media and entertainers across Germany come out as supportive of the comedian.

Jan Böhmermann, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/Jörg Carstensen
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Jörg Carstensen

"Erdogan, report me," sang comedian Dieter Hallervorden. It was just one of the reactions making the rounds over the weekend after Turkey requested criminal prosecution against comedian Jan Böhmermann for a poem he recited on-air.

The snide poem makes use of exaggerated insults against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, including references to child pornography and sex with animals. It was read aloud in his satire show on the public broadcaster ZDF - with the intention of satirizing the repression of satire and freedom of speech in Turkey. But did Böhmermann go too far?

"Every joke that you forbid turns you into a joke," sang Dieter Hallervorden in a German folk song blended with Turkish sounds - a musical way to make fun German Chancellor Angela Merkel for standing behind Erdogan.

Serdar Somuncu, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Förster
Comedian Serdar Somuncu is himself known for pushing the boundaries of free speechImage: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Förster

Satirical genius or defamation?

The relationship between Germany and Turkey in connection to the Böhmermann video was debated Sunday night (10.04.2016) on the "Anne Will" talk show, a widely viewed political roundtable from public broadcaster ARD. The title of the discussion: "Arguments surrounding the Erdogan criticism: Does the government bow down to Turkey?"

The show was a trending topic on Twitter Sunday evening and made for a heated debate on Facebook as well. Commenting on the ARD Facebook page, on viewer asked why Böhmermann hadn't yet apologized: "That way we could spare ourselves such a dreadful show; instead, we have a fundamental discussion about freedom of speech."

Serdar Somuncu, a well-known satirist and cabaret artist of Turkish origin, was one of the guests on the show. He made it very clear that he supports Böhmermann. The video from the ZDF episode of "Neo Royale" was very clearly a satire, he argued, because it is broadcast on a television show that is well-known for its satirical content.

Dieter Hallervorden, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Pedersen
Caberet performer Dieter Hallenvorden, who was once accused of racist content, aims to support Böhmermann with his songImage: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Pedersen

Media professor Bernhard Pörksen, who was also a guest on "Anne Will," claimed the piece was a genius move. "Jan Böhermann produced a hybrid with this - a satirical genius."

Will Merkel allow Erdogan to blackmail her?

Even though he said he personally did not find the poem good, Serdar Somunco claimed that "it is the right of the artist to determine which medium drives the satire. That's a fundamental law in Germany that protects us - most of all, the chancellor."

He went on to criticize the way that Angela Merkel has not defended freedom of speech against Erdogan. Germany has become a place that can be blackmailed because of the immigrant swap deal the EU recently made with Turkey, he said, and she doesn't want to endanger that.

Talk show guest and conservative politician Elmar Brok (CDU) defended the behavior of the chancellor and was criticized by Twitter users for it. "What do we care what Turkey says? Don't we have even a spark of self-confidence?" reads the tweet below.

Over Facebook, one user wrote, "Isn't this great?! The Turkish government telling us in Germany how to do satire. It's beginning to get embarrassing. Have we lost our backbone?"

Jan Böhmermann not yet in front of a judge

It wasn't just Serdar Somuncu who said that ZDF was a bit pre-emptive in removing the piece from their online media library. During "Anne Will," he said several times that German media is too scared and there's a discrepancy. In the talk show, however, the poem was not quoted or cited - something that lawyer Thomas Stadtler criticized on Twitter, asking how it could be discussed without seeing it.

On Deutsche Welle's television news broadcast, culture and literature expert Susanne Scharnowski of Berlin's Freie Universität spoke about the case. As Böhmermann has not yet been charged, this is not a court case. In apologizing to Erdogan, Angela Merkel had pre-emptively found him guilty, she said, adding that that's not the responsibility of the chancellor.

"Freedom of speech cannot be held up high enough, especially in a time in which journalists are going to prison for criticizing or annoying the state premiere. One should not take freedom of speech for granted but should instead be thankful for every opinion that shows us how important this right is."

'I laughed loudly'

Many of the reactions say that they are on Böhmermann's side because he so clearly acknowledged that it was satire and that the poem is protected by freedom of speech and artistic freedom. The snide poem, however, was said to hit below the belt.

In an open letter published in the "Welt am Sonntag" newspaper, Mathias Döpfner, head of major publishing house Axel Springer, which publishes "Bild" and "Die Welt," said that he stood on the side of Böhmermann. "I'd like to say from the get-go: I found the poem priceless. I laughed loudly," said Döpfer.

The point of the poem, he said, was to fill it with insulting stereotypes in order to "disturb the people through maximum provocation in order to get them to think about what a society with satire looks like - and more importantly - how to handle a non-democratic state with an intolerance for satire."

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