Germany agrees to Turkish request to allow investigation of TV satirist

Jan Böhmermann could face jail time for insulting Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan

One of Germany's leading satirists could face jail time for insulting the Turkish president after Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed to a request from Ankara to open a criminal investigation into the case.

Two weeks ago, Jan Böhmermann read on his television show a poem suggesting the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, among other things, had kebab breath and enjoyed sex with goats.

The satirist chose the deliberately crude lines, which he dubbed “Smear Poem”, to mock the Turkish leader’s thin skin over previous swipes by German satirists.

In addition, Mr Böhmermann was highlighting German limits on free speech thanks to a century-old law that forbids insults of a foreign head of state.


But Mr Böhmermann’s meta satire - and Ankara’s response - created a dilemma for Chancellor Angela Merkel, leaving her torn between the need to defend free speech while not alienating Turkey as it co-operates with the EU as a recent refugee swap deal gets under way.

The most sensitive point for Dr Merkel: the criminal investigation requested by Ankara under the law in question, paragraph 103 of the criminal code, can only take place if the federal government grants permission.

After days of rows in her government - and differences of opinion with her junior coalition parter - Dr Merkel said her government would grant the request for an investigation. That would give the legal system “the last word” in the affair, and her government would then abolish by 2018 a law she said was “superflous in the future”.

“It is not the job of a government but of state prosecutors and laws to weigh up the personal rights of those affected ... against the freedom of the press and of art,” said Dr Merkel in a statement. She insisted the decision to grant leave to investigate did not prejudice the case against Mr Böhmermann.

The decision comes after two awkward weeks for the German leader. At first she appeared to criticise Mr Böhmermann's poem as "deliberately offensive" in a phone call with Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

This caused outrage in some German political and media circles, already critical of Dr Merkel for dealing with Ankara on the EU refugee swap deal despite state crackdowns on media and minorities.

The row escalated this week when, despite signals to the contrary, Ankara filed a request for an investigation -- and Mr Erdogan filed a personal complaint on another front.

That appeared to harden Dr Merkel’s position, and she insisted on Tuesday that German guarantees on freedom of expression in Germany “apply regardless of all the political problems that we discuss with each other ... and that includes the issue of refugees”.

The case has electrified public opinion, and caused tensions inside her grand coalition in Berlin. While Dr Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) favoured allowing the case to proceed, her Social Democrat (SPD) junior partners were opposed.

“I view this decision as wrong,” wrote Mr Thomas Oppermann, SPD Bundestrag floor leader on Twitter. “Criminal prosecution because of satire and lèse-majesté does not fit in a modern democracy.”

German media lawyers say Mr Böhmermann’s meta-satire has landed him in legal hot water because the laws he was challenging do not recognise the intention but merely the words used to insult a head of state.

Complicating matters further is that the laws Mr Erdogan has invoked, dating in part back to the pre-war era, speak of an insult without providing a clear definition.

Mr Böhmermann has not commented in public on the case, but he cancelled Thursday evening’s Neo Magazin Royale show and a police car has taken up watch outside his Cologne home.

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin