Berlin (AFP) – Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday authorised criminal proceedings sought by Turkey against a German TV comedian over a crude satirical poem about President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that has sparked a bitter row over free speech.
In a surprise decision that exposed rifts within Merkel’s government, she said the German judiciary would now have to decide whether the popular comic, Jan Boehmermann, could be convicted under rarely enforced lese-majeste legislation.
“The government will give its authorisation in the case at hand,” Merkel told reporters in a hastily arranged statement broadcast live on national television.
A probe under section 103 of the criminal code — insulting organs or representatives of foreign states — can only go forward with the approval of the federal government.
The offence can carry a punishment of up to three years in prison.
Merkel said the government agreed it would scrap what many labelled an outdated statute by 2018 as a result of the embarrassing affair.
Ankara this month filed a formal request for a criminal inquiry to be launched in Germany against Boehmermann, who accused Erdogan of bestiality and paedophilia in the so-called “Defamatory Poem”.
Boehmermann gleefully admitted he was flouting Germany’s legal limits on free expression, but has kept a lower profile since the furore erupted.
The comedian was reacting to Ankara’s decision last month to summon Germany’s ambassador in protest at another satirical song broadcast on German TV which lampooned Erdogan in far tamer language.
– Courts have last word –
Merkel — who had previously labelled Boehmermann’s poem “deliberately insulting” — had pledged Turkey’s request would be “very carefully” examined, even as she underlined the German constitution’s guarantees of “freedom of expression, academia and of course the arts”.
On Friday she said her government, after heated internal debate, had concluded that only the judiciary should decide whether Boehmermann had committed a criminal offence.
“In a state under the rule of law, it is not a matter for the government but rather for state prosecutors and courts to weigh personal rights issues and other concerns affecting press and artistic freedom,” she said.
Merkel stressed that Berlin’s decision did not amount to a “prejudgement” on his legal culpability and that “prosecutors and courts” would have the last word.
German prosecutors last week opened a preliminary probe against Boehmermann, 35, after complaints by dozens of viewers.
The case comes at an extremely awkward time as Europe is relying on Ankara to implement a pact spearheaded by Merkel to curb the flow of migrants taking boats headed for the European Union from Turkey’s shores.
It exposed Merkel to criticism she was compromising basic values to win Erdogan’s continued cooperation on the refugee issue.
– ‘Unbearable kowtowing’ –
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier had opposed any criminal prosecution of Boehmermann on free speech grounds, and officials from his Social Democrats, junior partners in Merkel’s government, slammed Friday’s announcement.
“I consider this decision wrong,” SPD parliamentary group leader Thomas Oppermann tweeted, adding that prosecution based on lese-majeste did “not fit in a modern democracy”.
Sahra Wagenknecht of the far-left opposition Die Linke called it “unbearable kowtowing” to the “Turkish despot Erdogan” at the “expense of press freedom in Germany”.
German commentators noted the irony that Erdogan — who is accused of becoming increasingly autocratic — has come in for fierce Western criticism over a crackdown on free speech in Turkey.
Turkey’s most popular comedian, Cem Yilmaz, went on trial this month accused of insulting a provincial governor and could face two years in prison.
US President Barack Obama warned that Turkey’s approach towards the media was taking it “down a path that would be very troubling” after two leading opposition journalists were put on trial.
In response Erdogan, who has dominated the Turkish political scene since 2003 as prime minister and then president, defiantly declared he would not take “lessons in democracy” from the West.
A German attorney for Erdogan, who also filed a personal criminal complaint in Germany against Boehmermann, declined to comment on Merkel’s decision.
“I have only heard about the decision in the media,” lawyer Michael-Hubertus von Sprenger told AFP.
“The government’s decision has not been formally filed yet.”