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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before; a comedian, a priest, and a rabbi walk into a courtroom. The priest and the rabbi leave after realizing they were supposed to meet a horse at the bar next door. The comedian sticks around to find out if he’ll face criminal charges over something that he said on TV.
As far as jokes go that one would be pretty awful. It’s also pretty awful that according to a BBC report, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has allowed a criminal inquiry into a performance by comedian Jan Boehmermann, following a complaint by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Jan Boehmermann had recited a satirical poem on television which made sexual references to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President of Turkey.
In fairness to Merkel, it’s German law that requires her to approve the inquiry. However, she did refer to the poem as ‘deliberately offensive’ leading some in Germany to accuse her of failing to stand up for free speech, and the law itself is a ridiculous one that should have been repealed a long time ago.
The case against Boehmermann hinges on a little used piece of Germany’s criminal code which 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.
Per the BBC, the article of the criminal code is from 1871 and at the time applied only to monarchs. It’s referred to as the ‘shah law’ among German lawyers for its use in 1964 by the Shah of Persia in a case against a Cologne newspaper (although one wonders if ‘the sharia law’ wouldn’t be a better moniker). More recently it has been used to bring charges against a man over comments he made on the internet.
The mere existence of a law designed to protect monarchs from being insulted flies in the face of liberal western values.
If Bill Burr were to offend Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe during his standup act, and President Obama allowed him to be charged under the King George Law, American bloggers, pundits, and twitter users would be going ballistic.
If that same law were then used to punish internet commenters our legal system would come to a screeching halt as jail cells overflowed with those who had used the web to weigh in on the sexual proclivities, personal hygiene, appearance, intelligence, professional ability, and political leanings of anyone to ever appear in the public eye.
Outrage over such charges would indeed be warranted. The ability of a foreign official to pursue a criminal case against a German citizen represents a frightening attack on Germany’s sovereignty.
Even without the involvement of a foreign actor it’s absurd and unacceptable for a western government to prosecute its citizens over their words or thoughts. In the past I’ve discussed this with regard to Canada’s Human Rights Tribunals which have been used to punish comedians for content that’s been deemed offensive, and the situation in Germany appears to be equally as troubling.
In the U.S. we look at the press as the 4th estate, and trust the media to check the government’s power. As the lines between individuals with twitter accounts, bloggers, comedians, and journalists become increasingly blurred in the digital age, it is incumbent upon us to protect universal free speech.
By allowing the prosecution of an artist over his use of the spoken word Chancellor Merkel has given a disturbing nod to a tactic that dictators have used for years; stifling dissent by punishing free expression.
In Germany this lack of regard for free speech already appears to be impacting the way TV networks make programming decisions.
ZDF television, the network that aired the offending poem, has decided not to broadcast Boehmermann’s weekly show ‘because of the furore surrounding him’ the BBC reported.
Boehmermann knew the poem could get him in trouble and acknowledged as much before reading it.
It was prefaced with an explanation that the poem was illegal in Germany, in reference to an Erdogan parody on German TV that the Turkish president had taken offence to days before.
The joke presumably was that in Germany you could be fined or even jailed for saying something so childish; and it highlighted Germany’s own problematic issues with free speech.
In the past Chancellor Merkel took issue with Erdogan’s thin skin (there are some 2,000 cases of ‘insulting the president’ open in Turkey) but his reaction to this poem seems to be enough to change her tone.
German free speech advocates worry that the current migration crisis has something to do with Merkel’s shift.
“Suddenly Turkey is essential to stopping the migration flow to Europe and Mrs. Merkel is treading very carefully,” the BBC writes.
By backing down and failing to protect a German performer in the face of a foreign leader’s hurt feelings Merkel has failed to defend her own country’s autonomy. What’s worse, she has failed to protect the free speech rights of every one of her citizens.
Whether the riled up party is a world leader, your next door neighbor, or a stranger on the internet the most essential element of free speech is that it exists to protect statements that disgust us the most. Once that freedom has been infringed upon its future becomes precarious. That idea may be lost on the easily cowed Merkel, but at least one person in Germany gets it.
The BBC reported that:
- President Erdogan’s German lawyer has urged the satirist to “make a commitment not to recite [the poem] again.”
- That does not seem likely. Boehmermann has made it clear he will not sign a cease-and-desist declaration.
- Whether you enjoy his comedy or detest it, Boehmermann’s stance on free speech is worthy of your applause.
Do you think PC (politically correct) culture will lead to this kind of censorship in the United States? Sound off in the comment section below!