Germany: Comedian cancels broadcast after satirical poem about Turkish President

by Ana Ribeiro and Michelle Trimborn

German comedian Jan Böhmermann has announced that the next issue of his TV-programme Neo Magazin Royale will not be produced due to public pressure. Turkey’s ambassador in Berlin has asked for Germany to prosecute Böhmermann over insulting Turkish President Erdoğan with a poem on air.

The move comes shortly after the German Foreign Office – quoting the right to freedom of expression – declined Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan‘s request to stop the publication of a satirical video by extra3, a comedy programme on German public broadcaster NDR. This time, however, the German government is showing signs of giving in, investigating the comedian under a seldom-used law against the defamation of foreign heads of state.

Deutsche Welle reported that a formal request from Turkey for the criminal prosecution of TV comedian Jan Böhmermann was sent via a diplomatic note from the Turkish ambassador to the German Foreign Ministry on 10 April. The request is related to Böhmermann’s reading of a poem on 31 March on Neo Magazin Royale, aired on another German public broadcaster, ZDF. Böhmermann did this as a reaction to the extra3 case, but with much more inflammatory remarks, clearly meant to push boundaries and even featuring a "media lawyer" advising him on air. Before reading his poem, the presenter publicly announced that it should serve as an example of how satire can be overdone and turned into a crime.

Chancellor Merkel reacts to poem

The broadcast has since been removed from the Internet by ZDF, which issued a statement against the "quality" of the programme. It has also drawn a negative reaction from German Chancellor Angela Merkel: She told Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu that she found the poem to be a "deliberately offensive text," according to The Guardian, which also mentioned that different branches of the German government are sitting together over how to respond to Turkey‘s request for the comedian’s prosecution. Merkel has since come under attack by her rivals in parliament for her stance in the case.

The Guardian also reported on 11 April that even before the formal request came in, the state prosecutor in Germany had been investigating Böhmermann "for violation of the little-used paragraph 103 of the criminal code, which concerns insulting organs or representatives of foreign states [and could carry] a prison sentence of up to three years." The news has spread across German as well as international media, and divided the public over the issue of satire vs. defamation of a foreign head of state: "The row has not only triggered a debate about the limits of free speech in Germany but also raised questions of whether Europe has made itself too reliant on the moods of Turkey’s strongman president, who is engaged in a crackdown on the media in Turkey," added The Guardian. 

Solidarity and calls for prosecution

Now Böhmermann and the production company of Neo Magazin Royale decided to cancel the broadcast for this week. They stated on Facebook:

The reason is the massive reporting and the related focus on the programme and its presenter."

Public broadcaster ZDF agreed with this decision.

Before, ZDF was highly criticised for deleting the poem from its online archive. But on 11 April, the broadcaster’s director general, Thomas Bellut, showed solidarity with the comedian: "I stand by satirical programmes, their presenters and Mr. Böhmermann as well." Many comedians, presenters, media workers and members of the general publicly are openly supporting Böhmermann and his action, always stressing the right to satire. Veteran Comedian Dieter Hallervorden even released a song with the title "Erdogan, zeig mich an" ("Erdogan, charge me with doing this"), trying to make a fool of the Turkish President and stating that it is actually the President’s excessive reactions to satire that have made the songs and also the poem famous.

However, not everyone in Germany supports Jan Böhmermann. Many claim that he actually did what he intended to do: Instead of publishing a piece of satire, his poem was insulting rather than funny. It is only fair, some argue, that Böhmermann needs to be prosecuted as he openly committed a crime.

Strained situation for Turkey and Germany

The case is considered as the next level of tension in the relationship between Germany and Turkey. Some weeks ago, Germany’s ambassador to Turkey was called in by the Turkish government not only because of the extra3 satire, but also because he attended the trial against Cumhuriyet journalists Can Dündar and Erdem Gül

The relations between Germany and Turkey have also been under pressure since the EU made a controversial deal with Turkey to "swap" refugees: Every "irregular" migrant arriving in Greece would be sent back to Turkey, and for every one sent back, the EU would let in a Syrian refugee from Turkey and speed up the visa process for Turkish citizens. The ECPMF reported on 5 April that almost 200 people had been deported in the first three boatloads, and that protests had been happening in Athens earlier in March against the worsening situation of refugees.