If Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had his way, he would have the German satirist Jan Böhmermann behind bars by now. The reason? During his regular late-night talk show on March 31, Böhmermann issued a blistering attack on Erdoğan in the form of a satirical poem. Seated before the Turkish flag and a portrait of Erdoğan, Böhmermann accused the president of, among other things, sex with goats and sheep. The comedian also stated that Erdoğan loved to “repress minorities, kick Kurds and beat Christians while watching child porn.”
Instead of ignoring Böhmermann’s satirical taunts, Erdoğan resorted to a habit he has been relentlessly pursuing in recent months: attempting to silence criticism, satire, and anything that dares to mock or question the policies of the Turkish president—by putting writers and journalists in jail. Erdoğan claimed that Böhmermann had insulted not just him personally but the entire Turkish population. He intends to seek redress in the German courts.
Prosecutors in Mainz, home to the German public television channel ZDF, which hosts Böhmermann’s shows, said Erdoğan was pressing charges for being insulted both as a private person and as a foreign head of state. If this is proved to be the case, Böhmermann could end up behind bars. As it is, he is under police protection. ZDF has canceled his next show.
The affair has put German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the spot. It was she who spearheaded a deal with Turkey in March 2016 to stem the flow of refugees trying to reach EU countries, particularly Germany. Under the terms of that accord, Turkey will take back refugees and migrants stranded in Greece in return for €6 billion ($6.8 billion) of EU financial assistance as well as promises by EU countries to take their share of other refugees and by the EU to open new chapters of Ankara’s accession negotiations.
Human rights organizations have criticized Merkel and the EU not only for subcontracting out the refugee problem but also for undermining the laws designed to protect refugees—something that EU leaders deny.
Wanting to keep relations between Berlin and Ankara on an even keel, Merkel told Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu that Böhmermann’s poem was “deliberately offensive,” while others even said it was vulgar and not worthy of being called satire. But then artists and writers came to the satirist’s defense. In an open letter published by the German weekly Die Zeit, some 70 artists and prominent persons demanded that proceedings be dropped.
Michael Bertrams, a former president of the Constitutional Court of North Rhine-Westphalia, urged the federal government not to authorize a prosecution on charges of insulting a foreign head of state, as sought by Erdoğan. “[The government] would surrender not only Jan Böhmermann but also the freedoms of opinion and artistic expression to an autocrat and despot who flouts civil rights in his own country in a gross manner,” Bertrams said.
Indeed, a new report by English PEN, an organization that seeks to uphold literary freedom, makes for depressing reading about Erdoğan’s growing repression of the media. During 2015, the report states, “more than 30 journalists [were] in jail, more than 100 were detained, close to a thousand bans on publication were issued and access to more than 42,000 websites [was denied].”
The report goes on to argue how Erdoğan’s intimidation strategy has been to treat any criticism as a personal affront and to bring charges against those responsible. Many journalists face potential jail terms on charges of insulting the president or prime minister “for no more than voicing criticism.” Since 2014, there have been 1,845 cases based on charges of insulting the president. The accused include caricaturists, a thirteen-year-old boy, lawyers, and party leaders.
In recent days, Merkel has toughened her stance on the Böhmermann case. She said on April 12 that press freedom in Germany was nonnegotiable and must be kept apart from the refugee issue. “Freedom of the press, opinion and science apply and are completely separate from [the refugee agreement],” she insisted.
That is easier said than done. What is now certain is that by trying to muzzle Böhmermann, Erdoğan has shown how he deals with criticism back home. He won’t have done himself any favors in Germany.