Germany: Comedian faces potential prosecution for criticising Turkish president

18 April 2016

German comedian Jan Böhmermann’s satirical and controversial poem criticising Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has not only pushed the boundaries of humour, but has also propelled political debate between the two nations and called into question the values of freedom of expression.

The poem, which Böhmermann read on his public broadcaster ZDF television programme ‘Neo Magazin Royale’ on 31 March 2016, has led oft-described thin-skinned Erdoğan to file a legal complaint against the comedian invoking an infrequently used paragraph of the German criminal code that concerns insulting foreign state representatives and institutions.

However, it remained unclear whether the German government would authorise prosecutors to conduct a criminal inquiry, as the paragraph in question – paragraph 103 – requires government authorisation.

This all changed on 15 April 2016 when Merkel gave the go-ahead. If criminal proceedings indeed do transpire and a case is brought to the comedian, Böhmermann could face up to three years in prison for his satirical piece.

The comedian has been placed under police protection and announced on 16 April 2016 that he would be taking a four-week break from his tv show, reported Deutsche Welle. ZDF placed the show on hold until 12 May 2016.

The poem and paragraph 103
Böhmermann’s poem, which he deliberately executed as a test of Germany’s satirical boundaries, seems to have served its purpose and possibly gone beyond the comedian’s expectations.

The comedian’s poem was more than just a poem as it was prefaced by an explanation that what he was about to read was illegal, constructing it as a fuller piece on satire and legality.

The poem accused the Turkish president of various offenses, including the repression of minorities, and also makes references to bestiality. Throughout the recital Böhmermann was advised by a “media lawyer” and once finished, asks his advisor what would happen next.

After Merkel announced the authorisation to proceed with the inquiry, the German chancellor added that the government would move to repeal paragraph 103 by 2018, calling the law “superfluous”. The law doesn’t exist in most other European countries, noted Reuters.

Critics and analysts have said that this case leaves Merkel in a conundrum as authorising the inquiry could be seen as Germany bowing to Turkey for its critical role in the migrant crisis, but could ostracise the German people who view freedom of expression to be a paramount human right, reported Reuters.

While some, including fans of the comedian, found the poem childish and vulgar, consensus still shows that he shouldn’t be prosecuted for it, whether people find the poem funny, amusing or otherwise, reported BBC.

A YouGov poll showed that 54 percent of Germans opposed an investigation, and only 6 percent were in favour. Further, on 11 April 2016 a petition was initiated to dismiss Böhmermann’s charges. As of the writing of this article the petition has garnered over 237,000 of the 300,000 signatures needed.

Thin-skinned president
BBC reported that Erdoğan has opened nearly 2,000 cases against people for insulting him since he took office in 2014, and some 1,800 people, including celebrities and schoolchildren, have been prosecuted in a similar a manner to the case against the comedian by using a “previously little-used” Turkish law.

Erdoğan’s lawyer Michael-Hubertus von Sprenger said that the president wants the comedian to be punished and will go to the highest court if necessary, reported Reuters.

According to Freemuse analysis, since Erdoğan’s rise to the presidency, Turkey was ranked third in 2014 and fifth in 2015 for having the worst record of violations of artistic freedom of expression, including tracking cases of censorship and serious violations, such as attacks, threats, prosecutions and imprisonment.

A song mocking authority
Böhmermann’s poem followed just two weeks after German television aired a song mocking Erdoğan’s authoritarian style of leadership, as well as some of his physical characteristics.

The song highlighted how Erdoğan’s government tackles the imprisonment of journalists in Turkey and the shutting down of newspaper offices, the violent treatment of protestors, including women, and mocks the recent migration deal struck between Turkey and the European Union, in which Germany played a driving role.

Germany’s ambassador to Ankara was summoned several times by the Turkish foreign ministry, condemning the song and demanding it be removed from the airwaves.

European Commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva told reporters that Turkey’s demands move the country “further from the EU” and that “freedom of the press and freedom of expression are values the EU cherishes”.

The history of paragraph 103
The law was drafted in 1871 and originally only made it illegal to insult foreign kings and queens, until after World War II when the law was expanded to include all foreign heads of state, reported Vice.

Paragraph 103 states:
(1) Whosoever insults a foreign head of state, or, with respect to his position, a member of a foreign government who is in Germany in his official capacity, or a head of a foreign diplomatic mission who is accredited in the Federal territory shall be liable to imprisonment not exceeding three years or a fine, in case of a slanderous insult to imprisonment from three months to five years.

Germans didn’t take notice of the obscure law, however, until the 1960s when the Shah of Iran was often offended during his visits to the country that the law was invoked. One case led to the fining of a Cologne newspaper in 1964 for a photo montage. However, that didn’t stop the Shaw who invoked the law so frequently that eventually the government stopped looking into the case. Subsequently, the law took on the nickname of “the Shah paragraph”.

The law came up again in 1975 following protests against Chilean dictator Pinochet, and was again dusted off in 2006 for an insulting parade float of Pope Benedict XVI, and again in 2007 when a Swiss man in Bavaria posted offensive comments of Swiss president Micheline Calmy-Rey.


» Deutsche Welle – 17 April 2016:
German comedian Jan Böhmermann takes a broadcasting break

» Vice – 17 April 2016:
A brief history of the outdated law that makes satire punishable in Germany

» BBC – 15 April 2016:
Germany Turkey: Merkel allows inquiry into comic’s Erdoğan insult

» BBC – 15 April 2016:
Germany Turkey: Satire row stirs free speech fears

» BBC – 12 April 2016:
Germany Turkey: Police protection for satirist Böhmermann over Erdogan poem

» Reuters – 12 April 2016:
Turkey gives Merkel a headache with case against comedian

» The Guardian – 11 April 2016:
Turkey asks Germany to prosecute comedian over Erdoğan poem

» BBC – 30 March 2016:
Germany and EU reject protests over song mocking Erdoğan

Related information

» – 22 February 2016:
Art Under Threat: Attacks on artistic freedom in 2015

» – 12 November 2015:
Turkey: EU and UN address Turkey’s troublesome arts freedom record

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