When a German comedian on a niche TV show prepared to read a poem about Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he said: “What I’m about to read is not allowed. If it were to be read in public, that would be forbidden in Germany.”
He wasn’t wrong.
By reading the piece, which accused Erdogan of bestiality, paedophilia and human-rights abuses, Jan Böhmermann broke an obscure German law on insulting heads of state—and kicked off a row that has put chancellor Angela Merkel in a sticky situation.
A court in the city of Mainz is awaiting government go-ahead to start proceedings against the 35-year-old comic after it received formal complaints from the Turkish president and the government in Ankara this week.
That’s where it got messy for Merkel. She tried to head off the drama last week, calling the Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu to admit the poem was “deliberately hurtful.” That did nothing to appease the famously thin-skinned Turkish leader.
Now the chancellor is being blasted for not standing up for Germany’s constitutional right to free speech and kowtowing to her political ally Erdogan.
“Art and these fundamental values are valid regardless of any political problems we are discussing with each other, and that includes the refugee issue,” Merkel said on Tuesday.
The refugee issue, of course, refers to the controversial agreement between the EU and Turkey to stem the flow of migrants into Europe. The deal is especially important for Germany, whose open-door policy has seen over 1.1 million migrants arrive in the last year. Keeping the refugee situation under control is also essential to the chancellor and her conservative party’s survival during next year’s elections.
Turkish people are the largest immigrant group in Germany and, fearing reprisals, Böhmermann cancelled his TV show and is reportedly under police protection at his home in Cologne.
The German public has come out in force in support of Böhmermann. His colleagues at public broadcaster ZDF demanded the poem be reposted online, while the head of the Axel Springer publishing house wrote an open letter of support to the comic in Die Welt newspaper. A YouGov poll (link in German) on Tuesday showed that 77% of Germans didn’t think the satirist should be prosecuted, and 68% said Merkel’s apology to the Turkish prime minister was inappropriate. A survey by Focus Online showed that out of 61,000 people polled, 78% thought the government should stand behind Böhmermann.
Left Party politician Sahra Wagenknecht said: “If Merkel caves in the Böhmermann case, he [Erdogan] will be able to strike at will in Germany whenever he wants to.”