German comedian may be prosecuted for obscene poem about Turkish president

Germany will weigh whether to prosecute a popular comedian for reading an obscene poem about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on national television, the government announced Monday.

The Turkish government formally requested that criminal proceedings be brought against Jan Boehmermann over the poem, which suggested that Erdogan engaged in sexual acts with goats.

"I think that we showed together with ZDF where the limits to satire are here in Germany. Finally!" the comedian wrote on Facebook after reading the poem on his ZDF network show on March 31.

It wasn't the first time Boehmermann had tried to get under Erdogan's skin. On March 22, he sang a song lampooning the Turkish leader as a thin-skinned authoritarian who trounces civil liberties. Turkey's Foreign Ministry summoned the German ambassador for a meeting over the song, but the envoy maintained that freedom of expression is treasured in Germany, where memories of the country's Nazi past are never far from the surface.

This time around, German Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert surprised reporters by saying officials were "carefully reviewing" the Turkish government's request. It is illegal under Section 103 of Germany's criminal code to insult foreign leaders, though the law is rarely enforced.

If prosecutors bring charges and Boehmermann is convicted, he could face up to three years in jail.

"The cornerstone of the constitution, freedom of expression, is nonnegotiable," said Seibert, a former ZDF journalist. "That applies regardless of whether the chancellor finds something personally to be successful or repellent from an artistic point of view, or tasteful or tasteless."

Merkel has typically been a champion of free speech, having grown up in communist East Germany. She regularly praises critics of her policies and people with different views, saying she is glad she lives in a country where that is possible.

Critics say Merkel is giving in to pressure from Ankara because she needs Turkey's cooperation to resolve the refugee crisis. Seibert denied that was a factor in the government's decision. "Solving the refugee question is in the joint interests of Germany, the European Union and Turkey," he said.

The chairman of Germany's association of professional journalists, Frank Ueberall, said that it was, in principle, understandable for the government to examine whether Boehmermann had violated the law, as the comedian said himself he was trying to challenge it.

"You have to give him credit for that," Ueberall said. "We wouldn't be able to have a discussion like this about the limits of free speech in Turkey. And I, for one, am quite happy to live in a country where that's possible."

But free speech advocates were incensed that the German government appeared to back Turkey.

"We live in a free country and I don't believe that any foreign leader should have the right to decide how far free speech and especially satire in Germany can go," said Dieter Hallervorden, a popular satirist. "That should be up to us to decide."

"It's appalling that the German government allows itself to be blackmailed by Ankara," said Sahra Wagenknecht, a leader in the left-wing Die Linke party.

Peter Tauber, the deputy leader of Merkel's conservative party, defended the inquiry. "We've got a strong tradition in Germany as far as free speech and satire are concerned. But at the same time rules have to be respected. And one of the rules is that insulting foreign leaders is a punishable offense."

Kirschbaum is a special correspondent.

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A version of this article appeared in print on April 12, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "To Turks, satirical TV poem is a crime - Germany weighs Ankara's request against comedian" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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