Copyright under CC: Jonas Rogowski

Jan Böhmenmann drinking Glump at an event in Rostock in 2014 (Photo: Jonas Rogowski)

Free Speech and Abusive Language in Germany

UPDATE 10/05/2016: The Turkish president has taken several people to court who showed solidarity with Jan Böhmermann. The Cologne Landgericht (regional court) issued a preliminary injunction against director Uwe Böll, forbidding him from repeating offensive statements on YouTube. According to Erdogan's lawyer Ralf Höcker, the president has also applied for a preliminary injunction against Matthias Döpfner, the CEO of Axel Springer. He had expressed his solidarity with Böhmermann, writing in a Facebook post that he fully agrees with everything the comedian said - "just in case". Höcker further stated that nobody who uses slanderous statements against Erdogan should "feel safe". 

Freedom of speech and expression has become a hot topic in Germany (and throughout Europe) ever since the German satirical TV show extra 3 aired the song “Erdowie, Erdowo, Erdogan” on March 17. The song used various snippets from public videos of Recep Erdogan portraying him as a “wannabe dictator” with the tunes from Nena’s Irgendwie, irgendwo, irgendwann. Turkey summoned the German ambassador to justify the song and demanded that it be deleted. extra 3 reacted by putting the song on YouTube with subtitles in Turkish and English. Ironically Turkey’s reaction made the song hugely popular online and sparked a national debate on freedom of speech. 


This prompted Jan Böhmermann, the self-described irrelevant, “pale, thin boy” of German TV, to hastily joined the debate by testing out the boundaries with his “abusive poem” (Schmähgedicht). It was aired on the online streaming service of the second German public TV station and at 22:30 on zdf_neo, a speciality programme of ZDF. In other words: even though Böhmermann is pretty popular among the internet savvy youth, it is fair to say that without the media attention the poem received it would have most likely stayed unknown. 


At lot has been written about the “Böhmermann affair”. The show was deleted on ZDF’s streaming service and all news outlets (in Germany and soon also worldwide) wrote about it; most labelling it bad taste (some even racist) but definitely covered by freedom of press and others even calling it genius. Ironically, Böhmermann had warned his audience before and during the poem that he was doing something illegal, not funny and that it wasn’t covered by freedom of expression. (The Berlin administrative court later agreed to Böhmermann’s argumentation that in the context it was covered by the law, however, quoting the poem without it isn’t.) 


Erdogan obviously felt insulted and Angela Merkel promptly gave her opinion on the show, saying it was intentionally hurtful. Erdogan launched a law suit against Jan Böhmerann on the grounds of defamation and even requested the German government to use an antiquated law dating back to 1871 of insulting a foreign head of state (under which the maximum sentence is higher). The government agreed to Böhmermann’s prosecution (the SPD minsters voting against it); even though shortly afterwards Merkel claimed the law would be scraped in the near future. The government argued that Germany is a “law-based state” and that the law should be respected. Many commentators agreed with the position, arguing that this should be something to be decided by an unpolitical court. Others claimed it was a political decision and that the German government didn’t want to threaten the earlier agreed upon EU-Turkey refugee deal. The guardian even went as far to call Merkel an “unprincipled realpolitiker”.


This “affair” says a lot about Erdogan. For example, now it is widely known that Turkey, which according to Reporters without Norders ranks on the 149th place for media freedom, is prosecuting 1845 people in Turkey for defaming Erdogan. But what does it say about the state of media freedom in Germany? 


On 22 March Bruno Kramm, a musician and board member of the Pirate Party, was shortly arrested in front of the Turkish embassy in Berlin. He had organised the demonstration “No Power for Erdowahn” (a portmanteau of Erdogan and Wahn, i.e. mania) where he was citing parts of Böhmermann’s poem to protest against Turkey’s treatment of minorities. According to Kramm, he was merely analysing the poem and stressed that the violence against Kurds and Christians in Turkey is real. However, as the Berlin administrative court had previously decided that citing the poem without context is illegal, the police had detained Kramm. Furthermore, the police had allowed the demonstration under the requirement of the poem not being citied (the court had previously ruled that an earlier registered demonstration where activists wore goat masks and cited the poem was illegal). 


According to a report on rbb|24, on 20 March a freelance photographer was prevented from taking a photograph of the Turkish embassy in Berlin by a policeman who claimed that there was a temporary photography ban of the embassy. The German press association (DJV) criticised the action of the policeman. Taking a photo of the private grounds of the embassy would have been forbidden but not of the building from the outside. After rbb|24 questioned the Berlin police, the press officer, who first denied the incidence, said that the policeman had indeed prevented the photographer from taking the photo as he had deemed it a threat. However, on 25 March the photographer was not hindered from taking photographs by the police protecting the embassy. Nevertheless, it shows how politically laden the issue has become. 


Also that week, the Turkish ambassador to the EU requested the EU to cease financing the “Aghet” project of the Dresden Symphony Orchestra. The project, which was partly financed through a 200,000 € grant from the EU, premiered in November 2015 in Berlin and is expected to also visit Istanbul. “Aghet” deals with the Armenian genocide, which Turkey denies to label genocide. Even though the EU commission denied the request by the Turkish government, the artistic director of the orchestra, Markus Rindt, nevertheless claims that the EU violated the principle of freedom of expression. According to Rindt, the EU deleted information about “Aghet” from its website. The EU commission claims the text was deleted because of the wording and an updated version will be uploaded in the next days. Furthermore, the commission claims it never questioned the execution of the project. 


So what are the implications for the freedom of press in Germany? Sure, if you examine these incidents out of context they might be quite worrying. However, looked at from a greater perspective Germany’s courts have proven to be very lenient in interpreting “defamation” cases against journalists and comedians. Nevertheless, this is also happening at the same time as the Turkey-EU migrant deal was agreed upon. The EU states, especially Germany, have a strong interest in getting along with Erdogan’s regime and turning a blind eye on human rights abuses in Turkey. In this case, however, the Turkish government went to far and completely underestimated the public reaction in Germany.