Chancellor Angela Merkel granted Turkey’s request to prosecute a German satirist who derided President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a decision that exposed a rift in her government and risked a backlash among the German public over press freedoms.
The episode, which began with a lewd joke directed at Erdogan on national television last month, lays bare the pitfalls in Germany’s dependence on Turkish help to tackle the region’s worst refugee crisis since World War II. While Merkel left the legal fate of the comedian, Jan Boehmermann, in the hands of the country’s courts, she said her government will seek to scrap the law in Germany’s criminal code that penalizes insults against a foreign head of state.
“In a state governed by the rule of law, it’s not the domain of the government, but rather the prosecutors and the courts, to weigh individual rights,” Merkel told reporters in Berlin on Friday, reading from a prepared statement. The chancellor both lauded Germany’s cooperation with Turkey and condemned its government’s crackdown of media organizations as a matter of “great concern.”
The decision blew open a divide in her Christian Democratic-led government, with ministers among the junior-partner Social Democrats dissenting, just one day after announcing an agreement on refugees meant to end bickering over the matter within her coalition. Merkel took the final decision herself to allow the probe after failing to win consensus with the SPD.
“I believe this decision is wrong,” SPD parliamentary caucus leader Thomas Oppermann told reporters. “Prosecution of satire because of lèse-majesté is not compatible with democracy.”
The furor has centered on Boehmermann, a comedian with public broadcaster ZDF who two weeks ago recited a poem about Erdogan that plumbed the depths of bawdiness in an effort to test the boundaries of acceptable satire under a law protecting foreign heads of state from libel. Merkel says her decision wasn’t a prejudgment on the satirist’s culpability.
Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said on Monday that the German comedian had committed a “crime against humanity” by insulting the Turkish head of state. “No one has the right to insult” Erdogan, Kurtulmus told reporters. Erdogan himself also filed a complaint with German prosecutors seeking legal action.
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The spat has spilled into the controversy over the European Union’s refugee agreement with Turkey, the centerpiece of Merkel’s response to the biggest migration crisis in Europe since World War II. The pact, which entails sending refugees seeking illegal passage to Greece back to Turkey, has been criticized by human rights groups as impractical and legally suspect and denounced elsewhere because of Erdogan’s efforts to censure the press and squelch dissent.
“Merkel now has to live with the accusation of bending to Erdogan,” Anton Hofreiter, a parliamentary opposition leader with the Greens, told reporters. “She has to live with the accusation that the deal with Turkey is more important than the defense of press freedom.”
Boehmermann’s poem was a response to the Turkish government’s complaints over an earlier German television satire criticizing Erdogan’s human-rights record. Merkel’s government rejected the initial criticism from Turkey at the end of March and news magazine Der Spiegel ran a cover story lampooning Erdogan as well.
ZDF removed the video clip of Boehmermann from its website two days after it aired, saying the poem had crossed a boundary of acceptable satire. Boehmermann’s lawyer, Christian Schertz, didn’t reply to an e-mail seeking comment.
The controversy had already led lawmakers to call for striking the passage on insulting a foreign head of state from the criminal code. Volker Kauder, the parliamentary caucus leader for Merkel’s CDU party in the lower house, said earlier Friday that the coalition would act to remove the law.
“The provision is outdated and no longer conforms with our times,” Kauder told Passauer Neue Presse newspaper. “We’ll move relatively quickly in the Bundestag.”
Merkel said legislation to remove the law will be introduced in this legislative period and take effect in 2018.