Congratulations, Germany! While you have been notoriously known for lacking a sense of humor and having seriously terrible comedy, you’re finally in the big leagues. The Böhmermann Affair is your chance to shine- a satirical piece which criticized a foreign leader, tested the boundaries of an outdated law, AND has gained worldwide attention! This is an amazing opportunity not just for your culture, but also for your country, to break the stereotypes holding it back and really make a mark- so let’s make sure you don’t screw it up.
For those of you not in the know, here’s a short summary: In March 2016, a German satirical show did a parody song of Nena’s “Irgendwo, irgendwie, irgendwann” titled “Erdowie, Erdowo, Erdoğan” which was mildly offensive to Turkish President Erdoğan. While admittedly the wordplay is reason enough to applaud the ridiculous parody (Germans DO love wordplay), Erdoğan did not appreciate the humor and reacted in an equally ridiculous way by calling the German ambassador to formally apologize. This is interesting because while in Germany there exists freedom of speech which naturally protects a person’s right to satirically mock an individual, there also exists a law against “abusive criticism” of a foreign politician. Section 103 protects against Schmähkritik and is a punishable offense with prison time. The fact that such a law exists is interesting, but not the main focus of this piece; in fact, German Chancellor Merkel has stated that steps have been made to remove the legislation by 2018.
What IS the focus of this piece is what happened next. German comedian/entertainer Jan Böhmermann, fully recognizing Section 103, decided to hold a little “experiment”: he wrote an incredibly offensive and critical poem wherein he implied (among other things) that President Erdoğan committed several crimes against human rights, enjoyed bestiality and beating women, and had miniscule sexual organs. The poem was also incredibly profane and (this is important) technically forbidden under Section 103, which was admitted by Böhmermann when he wrote and aired the poem on his publicly televised show March 31st. Since then, Erdoğan has demanded that Böhmermann be prosecuted, which Chancellor Merkel allowed on April 15th. This decision has been widely criticized as political, since Merkel and Erdoğan have entered into a tenuous and divisive agreement regarding the refugee crisis in the EU.
Now I’m not about to sit here and tell you Erdoğan is a saint. For all intents and purposes, it seems like he’s being more than a little sensitive regarding what should have been a minor offense. I have only done basic research on Erdoğan and it appears claims that he has violated human rights do have merit. More importantly, he’s the leader of a country and he cares that a German comedy show wrote a parody song? That’s just idiotic.
I’ll also not tell you that Böhmermann is completely without sin. He produced a satirical parody and decided to push the boundaries of a law (albeit outdated) by writing an extremely offensive poem that borders on slander. He then acknowledged that he would be breaking a law by broadcasting this poem, then went ahead and did it anyway. Since then ZDF, the network which airs his show, has understandably distanced themselves by removing the poem from their archives, and Böhmermann himself has taken a break “so the public and the internet can return to focusing on the important things in life like the refugee crisis, cat videos, and the love life of Sophia Thomalla” (his words). The investigation Merkel has allowed can therefore not be completely unexpected; one could argue that was the entire reason he wrote the poem in the first place. It’s like Böhmermann went into a cave to poke bears and now the public is acting surprised that a bear got mad. I’d be willing to wager Böhmermann wasn’t even surprised that this happened. And good for him! It needed to be done.
That’s what makes the next steps so important. Let’s ignore the fact that some people will twist this issue into anti-refugee sentiment, or anti-Merkel propaganda, or even an issue of free speech. Freedom of speech protects an individual from being persecuted for speaking their mind, but it also was conceived in a time when the only means of free speech were limited to written word and standing on a soapbox in the town square, shouting out obscenities. Even then a person could be justifiably removed for disturbing the peace. So Merkel’s decision to allow an investigation into Böhmermann to appease an asshole leader of a foreign country, and ZDF’s decision to distance themselves from someone who wrote an obscene poem, is not really the issue that needs to be kept in mind- no one’s been persecuted for free speech (yet).
The issue is that pretty much everyone agrees the law which Böhmermann broke was outdated and restrictive. If it wasn’t on the books, then Erdoğan could whine as much as he wanted and nothing would happen. But the law was on the books, and Böhmermann knew about it, and he broke said law. He could be a hero for bringing to light this frankly stupid piece of legislation (which, c’mon Germany- of all countries, you have a law against harsh criticism of a leader?); that doesn’t mean he should be let off completely scot-free. In the course of the prosecution, I imagine he’ll get a fine. He might even have to do some community service- whatever. But if handled properly, his career is going to skyrocket. This is seriously going to make him into a star and put German comedy on the forefront.
When George Carlin did his infamous “Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television” in Milwaukee, he got arrested. A resulting lawsuit (Federal Communications Commission vs. Pacifica Foundation) was groundbreaking and led to some of the laws still in place today regarding “decency” and offensive material in American media. I imagine the Böhmermann Affair will have a similar impact in Germany. If the result of the proceedings attempt to silence him, then we have a free speech problem. Otherwise, it’s the natural progression of events following his rebellion against the system. So instead of turning this into anything more than what it is, let’s please just take a step back and remember why it was done in the first place. It was a comedian who got international recognition for conducting an experiment against a ridiculous law which is now likely on its way out- and it’s a big first for German comedy. Welcome to the show! Just don’t talk about airplane food (like, what IS the deal?) and you’re going to be just fine.
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