The Böhmermann Case

I’m one of them. One of the approximately 300000 to 500000 German TV viewers who knew who Jan Böhmermann was before last week and who regularly watched his comedy program Neo Magazin Royale in its Thursday/Friday night post-midnight graveyard slot.

Now everybody knows who Jan Böhmermann is. His case is the top news headline in Germany and his smiling face looks at you from international news sites like The Atlantic (good summary, just don’t read the comments) or The Guardian that normally would never have paid any attention to an obscure German comedian.

More neepery about German politics, German TV and freedom of speech, press and art behind the cut:

So what happened? In the March 31 edition of his show Neo Magazin Royale, Jan Böhmermann read a very rude poem about the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdo?an precisely to point out the limits of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. The background is that Erdo?an had just thrown a fit about a song that had aired in another German comedy program, extra3, a song that criticized Erdo?an’s tendency to have critical journalists arrested to the tune of the Nena song “Irgendwie, Irgendwo, Irgendwann”. As satire goes, it was fairly harmless and to the point, yet Erdo?an called in the German ambassador to Turkey (who politely informed him that Germany has a little thing called freedom of press) and demanded that the song be deleted from the web. This in turn prompted Böhmermann to perform his deliberately insulting poem in order to point out the limits of satire.

A video of the extra3 song may be found here. Videos of the Böhmermann poem keep getting deleted and the one clip I found was posted on the website of a rightwing extremist magazine I refuse to link to, but a full transcript may be found here.

As might have been expected, Erdo?an (who must be an avid watcher of obscure German comedy programs) threw an even bigger fit and demanded criminal persecution of Jan Böhmermann. And unfortunately, the German criminal code contains an obscure paragraph that grew out of the lèse-majesté laws of the Imperial era and that makes it illegal to insult foreign heads of state, subject to persecution, if said head of state lodges an official complaint with the German government who will then decide whether the offender will be prosecuted. Paragraph 103 of the German criminal code is rarely invoked, though it has been in the past regarding alleged insults against the Shah of Persia (who also had his secret police beat up German student protesters in 1967 with not a peep from the German government – one protester died, shot dead by a German police officer), Ayatollah Khomeini (who objected to a doctored clip in a comedy program which showed enraptured women showing him with lingerie), Augusto Pinochet, the Kaczynski brothers (who objected to being called potatoes – coincidentally, Poland’s current prime minister also feels insulted by the same Jan Böhmermann skit due to being mentioned in a list of European politicians who would like to limit the freedom of the press) and several Popes (the latest example was a cartoon depicting Pope Benedict with condoms on his fingers). In short, it is a law that protects a bunch of very humorless people with rather tenuous ideas of democracy. And it’s a law that has no place in a modern democratic country and in fact should have been deleted long ago, as soon as the Kaiser was sent packing in 1918. Should foreign heads of state feel insulted by German journalists and comedians, they are free to sue for defamation and libel like any other person.

Now the German government had to decide to give the go-ahead to prosecute Jan Böhmermann. And today, Angela Merkel announced that she would give the go-ahead, because this was an issue not for the government but for the independent German courts to decide. Merkel has been widely criticised for this move and I have to admit that I am disappointed in her – after being extremely impressed with her conduct during the so-called refugee crisis. Though the wording of Merkel’s statement suggests that she is dumping the responsibility on the respective court (which may well decide in favour of Jan Böhmermann) to maintain good relations with Erdo?an especially in the light of the recent refugee agreement with Turkey. Coincidentally, Merkel also announced that paragraph 103 of the German criminal code would be altered or deleted.

All those (both in Germany and abroad) who complain that Angela Merkel is forced to back down in front of Erdo?an in order to safeguard the refugee agreement would do well to remember that Merkel is only in this situation because many other countries, mostly in Eastern Europe, but also the UK, France and the US, refused to take their fair share of Syrian and other refugees, leaving the lion’s share of them for Germany to deal with (which – speaking as someone who teaches German to refugees – works a lot better than many assume). As for those in Germany criticising Merkel’s decision from the right, Angela Merkel only had to push for the agreement with Turkey because of constant attacks from the right regarding her refugee policies. Never mind that the same people who now suddenly to defend Jan Böhmermann had no problem with prosecuting comedians when the offended party was the Catholic church. As for the rightwing nationalist AfD defending Böhmermann, don’t make me laugh. It wasn’t all that long ago that several AfD politicians were calling for Böhmermann’s head, since the AfD is one of his favoured targets. But I guess they hate Angela Merkel even more than they hate Jan Böhmermann.

Never mind that all the people, including politicians, including Angela Merkel, who were Charlie last year and spoke out in support of Charlie Hebdo (which IMO really does cross the line into racism and xenophobia at times and wholesale insults entire religions – whereas Böhmermann insulted a single person and not the Turkish people nor all Muslims – which is still no excuse to gun down cartoonists), are hypocrites, when they defend Charlie Hebdo and Salman Rushdie before, but suddenly turn on Jan Böhmermann. And let’s not forget those German politicians – usually on the right – who still want a certain quote by Kurt Tucholsky banned, the same Kurt Tucholsky who answered the question, “Was darf die Satire?” (What is satire allowed to do?) with “Alles” (Everything). So a lot of the time, people are only willing to defend freedom of speech and freedom of art when they approve of the message.

The bigger issue here is that – regardless of what is written in the Grundgesetz, the German constitution – art, speech and the press are not entirely free in Germany*. Now I agree with some limits on free speech, e.g. regarding hate speech, holocaust denial, etc… I disagree with others, e.g. the way that movies, TV shows and videogames are sometimes edited beyond recognition or made nigh unavailable (good luck trying to find the first two Evil Dead movies in Germany), in order to protect “the youth” from violent content. I don’t have a problem with protecting children and teens from problematic content, but adults should be free to watch or play what they want.

However as a writer, I have issues with the fact that in post-1945 Germany, the so-called personality rights of an offended person regularly trump the freedom of art. We’ve had two major court cases were novels were banned (as well as several involving works of non-fiction) because someone felt that their personality rights were violated by a work of fiction. Klaus (son of Thomas) Mann’s 1936 novel Mephisto, a roman a clef about the German actor and director Gustaf Gründgens and his collaboration with the Nazis, was banned in 1968 following a lawsuit by Gründgens’ adoptive son. So the personality rights of an (admittedly brilliant) actor and director with Nazi connections trump the freedom of art of a gay victim of Nazi persecution. Not really a great moment for German justice.

The second case is that of Maxim Biller’s 2003 novel Esra, an autobiographic novel about the troubled relationship between a Jewish-German man and a Turkish-German woman. Biller’s former girlfriend and her mother sued Biller and his publisher, because they felt the novel was a bit too autobiographic. Biller and the publisher offered to make changes, but the girlfriend and mother were not placated and demanded a ban. The case eventually went before the Supreme Court, which decided in favour of the girlfriend and mother.

Did Biller go a bit too far in his novel? Probably. As his regular appearance in the new Literarisches Quartett prove, he is something of a jerk. Nonetheless, the ban was wrong, especially since Biller and the publisher offered to make changes. Because court decisions like these put every writer in danger of getting sued by everybody who ever felt they recognised themselves in a novel. And people tend to mistake fiction for reality all the time.

Nevermind that except for people who know both Biller and the lady in question personally, no one would have connected the novel to any real person. The novel probably wouldn’t have made big waves either – Biller wasn’t exactly famous at the time. Now, however, it’s an infamous court case. And the ban wasn’t effective either, Esra is easy enough to find on the internet.

Ditto for the extra3 and Jan Böhmermann cases. extra3 airs on a regional channel with a late night repeat on a public TV channel. Every episode is watched maybe by half a million people. Neo Magazine Royale airs on a digital niche channel with a post-midnight repeat on a public TV channel. Every episode is watched maybe by 300000 to half a million people. These are not mainstream programs, they are late night niche programs watched by no more than maybe a million people altogether, probably less because there is likely some overlap among viewers. The Neo Magazine Royale episode in question probably had even fewer viewers than usual, because it was delayed till long past 1 AM because of the death of former German foreign secretary Hans Dietrich Genscher that day. I’m a regular viewer (of the ZDF repeat) and didn’t watch that day, because the show was too late for me.

The Erdo?an song would probably never have made any waves and never reached any Turkish people except for those Turkish-Germans who happen to be regular viewers of extra3. And Jan Böhmermann would never have written and performed his poem, if not for Erdo?an throwing a fit about extra3. And hardly anybody in Germany would have noticed the poem, let alone anybody outside Germany if not for Erdo?an throwing an even bigger hissy-fit. So in short, Erdo?an’s overreaction served to publicise the very pieces of satire he wanted to suppress in an excellent illustration of the Streisand effect in action.

I predict that the courts will likely dismiss the case against Jan Böhmermann as they did with the Pope case six years ago. And even if they don’t (because courts occasionally come to ridiculous decisions – see the Esra case), it’s highly unlikely that Böhmermann will actually go to prison over this. However, that poem and the extra3 song will be in the public consciousness for a long time and Erdo?an has only himself to blame for that.

*And before Americans yell about how speech is so much freer in the US – forget it. The US does not have entirely free speech either, as e.g. obscenity prosecutions regarding fringe pornography show. Their sore spots just lie elsewhere than ours.

Comments closed, because this is the sort of subject that brings out the jerks.

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