Insulting Mr. Erdoğan Can Be Dangerous
Most of our readers are probably aware by now that the German government finds itself in a rather awkward situation over its relations with Turkey’s government again – with which the EU has just struck a widely criticized and very expensive deal to help it stem the flood of refugees.
One thing is absolutely certain about Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan: He has no sense of humor whatsoever. As of early March 2016, 1,845 lawsuits were pending in Turkey for “insulting the president”. To see how extremely ridiculous most of these cases are, consider the one involving the pictures below:
Bilgin Çiftçi was fired from his job at Turkey’s public health service last October and detained after comparing Erdoğan to Gollum. He could face up to two years in prison. His lawyer Hicran Danisman said she was forced to argue in court that “Gollum is not a bad character” because she “got nowhere with a defense case based on freedom of expression”. The trial has now been adjourned to give the court time to “consult with a group of experts on whether Gollum is a good or a bad character”.
Two prominent Turkish journalists are even facing possible life sentences over what appear to be trumped-up treason charges after they reported on Turkey’s shady dealings with ISIS. A great many other journalists have lost their jobs and/ or are at risk of getting jail sentences. Not surprisingly, Turkey currently finds itself on place 149 of 180 on the global press freedom list. In short, it is quite dangerous to criticize or make fun of Mr. Erdoğan. This is a great pity, considering what an extremely inviting target he is.
People in other countries have begun to take it upon themselves to do what Turkish citizens can no longer do without exposing themselves to great personal risk. One of them is German TV show host and comedian Jan Böhmermann, who apparently found out that Germany still has a 19th century lèse majesté law on the statute books. He decided to test if this law would really be used to limit his right to free speech.
Lèse majesté is the “crime of violating majesty”, an offense against the dignity of a reigning sovereign or against a state. We presume that no-one in Germany ever thought to repeal this law, simply because it was never expected to become an issue and other things presumably seemed more important.
Most likely the law was viewed as akin to the Quitman, Georgia ordinance that forbids chickens to cross the road, or the Arizona law threatening offenders with 25 years of imprisonment for the crime of cutting down a cactus, or the Wyoming law that makes it illegal to take a picture of a rabbit between January and April without an official permit, or the Paulding, Ohio ordinance that makes it legal for policemen to bite a dog if they think it will calm the dog down… you get the drift.
Mr John Bull (a crude “everyman” character invented by caricaturist James Gillray) commits lèse majesté against an image of King George III in 1798. To the left, William Pitt the Younger, who threatened to suspend habeas corpus.
Illustration by Richard Newton
However, as noted above, Mr. Erdoğan is bereft of even the slightest trace of a sense of humor – in spite of often sounding like a stand-up comedian himself (see the addendum below for proof). He therefore decided to both sue Mr. Böhmermann privately, as well as demanding that Germany officially prosecute Böhmermann on the basis of the “abusive criticism” law as the lèse majesté law is known there.
The publicly owned TV station decided to remove the offending video from its web site (called the “ZDF mediatheque”), and was then forced to remove it from you-tube and other internet services as well (making it painfully obvious that most governments still don’t really understand how the inter-tubes work).
German comedian Jan Böhmermann
Photo credit: ZDF
Worst of all, Germany’s government has allowed the prosecution of Böhmermann to go forward under the pretext that it doesn’t want to interfere with the judiciary. In reality it is crystal clear to everybody that it is desperate not to endanger the EU’s deal with Turkey. Since everybody knows how extremely thin-skinned Erdoğan is, the German government probably considered it best to act in “preemptive obeisance”.
§ 103 of the German criminal code explicitly states that prosecution of a citizen over insulting a foreign head of state is only possible if a) the foreign government lodges a legal complaint and b) the German government agrees that the prosecution can go forward. In short, Ms. Merkel could have told Erdoğan that he was free to sue Böhmermann over defamation privately, but that he could take a hike otherwise. That she hasn’t done so has evidently emboldened the Turkish pasha, as Turkey’s government has just arrested a Dutch journalist over a tweet it deemed offensive.
What Actually Happened
Many readers are probably wondering “what the hell did Böhmermann actually say?” We show a video of the incident below, as well as providing a complete translation (we cannot guarantee that the video won’t be hunted down by censors, but copies of it have proliferated all over the internet by now, so we should be able to obtain a new embed code if this one stops working).
First a few words on the whole affair though: Yes, Böhmermann’s poem is indeed extremely insulting – deliberately so (and actually quite funny in a way, mainly because it is so extraordinarily cartoonish and exaggerated). What many people have apparently missed though is the context – for Erdoğan (and apparently also Ms. Merkel) there was clearly one meta-level too many involved.
Shortly before Böhmermann’s show aired, another German comedy show, “Extra 3”, presented a fairly harmless satirical song about Erdoğan (this is referred to in Böhmermann’s introductory remarks). Germany’s ambassador was thereupon summoned to the foreign ministry in Ankara, which demanded the deletion of the video. The ambassador presumably informed the Turkish ministry that this wasn’t possible, but other than that, the German government remained ominously silent.
Enter Böhmermann, who promptly set out to enrage Erdoğan further and at the same time seemed to fully expect that he would be able to unmask the German government’s hypocrisy as well. He succeeded in both endeavors, at a considerable cost to himself. Below is the video of the excerpt of the show that contains the offensive and tasteless “abusive criticism” poem. The translation is below the video.
We have made sure to include the context, i.e., both the introductory and closing remarks. In the former, Böhmermann and his sidekick Ralf Kabelka make clear why they are doing what they are about to do. In the latter, they recommend a lawyer to Erdoğan and inter alia discuss how important it will be to ensure that no-one ends up posting the insulting poem all over the internet, while wondering aloud why anyone would want to do such a thing…:)
It seems they anticipated that the TV station was likely going to be forced to remove the recording of the poem from its web site (which turned out to be correct). We suspect they wanted to make absolutely sure that it would leak out.
Böhmermanns Gedicht – eine Erklärung zu Verbotenem von hlederbauer
The part of Böhmermann’s comedy show that no-one in Germany is allowed to see anymore
[note: Jan Böhmermann is “JB” and his sidekick Ralf Kabelka is “RK”]
JB: “Welcome to Germany’s nonsense show number one! That’s us. Satire isn’t our cup of tea.”
JB: “What our colleagues in Hamburg at “Extra 3” have done, this wonderful stuff, that is something we’re just not capable of doing.”
RK: “No can do!”
JB: “And I say, hats off! Great song!”
RK: “That’s an entirely different league. Also the “Heute” show, that one is also great!” [ed. note: “Heute” is another comedy show on the same TV station. Its host is Oliver Welke, and competition between the two shows has become part of the act]
JB: “I really like the “Heute” show. When I heard in the past by way of rumor that we here are allegedly keen on getting the time slot of the “Heute” show, or getting anything that belongs to Oli Welke: I would never say that, that’s not true, under no circumstances! Oli, kisses! Great fan! I’m watching it every week to get inspiration! And satire: “Extra 3” has almost started World War III this week – a big round of applause for that! Yes! With a great song. And perhaps one should…evidently, in Turkey they’re watching every satire or nonsense show, no matter how small, probably this one as well. Perhaps, my dear Turks, if you are – hülü! – if you are watching this now, perhaps there is something that needs to be briefly explained here: What our colleagues of “Extra 3” have done, this is to say, using humorous content to deal with what you, Mr. Erdoğan, are so to speak doing politically down there – that is covered in Germany, in Europe, by freedom of the arts, freedom of the press, freedom of speech…”
RK: “Article 5!”
RK: “Article 5 of the constitutional law.”
JB: “Article 5 of our constitutional law, our wonderful constitution: One is permitted to do that here. You can’t just simply say that the federal government must withdraw the satire, or that it somehow has to be deleted from the internet. In Germany, such a thing is allowed, and I think it’s great how civil society has stood up this week – Beatrix von Storch [ed note: a German duchess and politician with the AfD], who still wanted to have me shot a mere two weeks ago I believe, for this funny song we made. And now she’s suddenly right on the front line, when freedom of the arts, freedom of the press, are at stake. All people were suddenly of one mind: This has to be permitted! Je suis Extra 3!”
RK: “Very good!”
JB: “Mr. Erdoğan, in some cases, things are done that aren’t allowed in Germany, in Western Europe, either. Thus, there is freedom of the arts – satire, art and fun – that is allowed. And there’s that other thing, what’s it called?”
RK: “Abusive criticism.”
JB: “Abusive criticism. That’s a legal term, so, what is abusive criticism?”
RK: “That’s if you defame people. If all you do is make below-the-belt arguments, right? If you throw insults, and really only vilify someone in terms of the private things that define that person.”
JB: “Vilification. And that’s not allowed in Germany either?”
RK: “That’s abusive criticism, yes.”
JB: “Have you understood that, Mr. Erdoğan?”
RK: “That can be prosecuted.”
JB: “That can be prosecuted? And then, things can also be deleted – but only afterward, not before?”
RK: “Only afterward.”
JB: “Perhaps that’s a bit complicated – maybe we should briefly explain it with the help of a practical example. I have a poem here, called “Abusive Criticism”. Could we perhaps have a version of a Nena song with that, with a slightly Turkish touch? And could we briefly put up a Turkish flag behind me, in the background? Very good. Now, the poem. So, what’s coming now, that is something one is not permitted to do?”
RK: “One is not permitted to do this”.
JB: “If that were to be presented in public, it would be forbidden in Germany.”
RK: “I believe so”
JB: “Okay. The poem is called “Abusive Criticism” (begins reading poem):
“Dumb as a doorknob, cowardly and repressed,
is Erdoğan, the president.
His breath  smells wretchedly of doner kebab,
even a pig fart smells better.
He is the man who beats up girls,
while wearing a rubber mask.
What he likes best is to f*** goats,
and to oppress minorities.”
JB: “So this would be something that so to speak…”
JB (continues reading poem):
“Kicking Kurds and beating up Christians,
while watching kiddie porn….
and even in the evening, instead of sleeping,
it’s fellatio with a hundred sheep.
Yes, Erdoğan is well and truly,
a president with a tiny d***.
JB (laughs about a little arabesque played by the band) : “As I said, this is something that one has to….”
RK: “One must not do that!”
JB: “One mustn’t do that.”
RK: “Don’t say ‘president’!”
JB (continues reading poem):
“Every Turk can be heard whistling,
the stupid pig has shriveled balls,
from Ankara to Istanbul,
everybody knows this guy is queer,
perverted, lice-ridden and zoophilic,
Recep Fritzl Priklopil .
His head as empty as his balls,
the star of every gang-bang party,
until his d*** burns when taking a leak,
that’s Recep Erdoğan, the Turkish president”
 the German term “Gelöt” is not really translatable. It usually designates things for which one cannot remember the correct term. However, since it is a subculture/ slang word (used primarily in Northern Germany), its usage has evolved over time, and it is actually employed in all sorts of contexts now. To really explain this fully, we’d have to write another article. We used “breath” as a stand-in, but it really means “whatever” – one can basically insert whatever term one thinks is most appropriate.
JB: “So this is something one wouldn’t be allowed to do in Germany…”
RK: “Completely out of the question!”
JB: “Keep it brief…hey… hey…hey…”
RK: “Stop clapping!”
JB: “Thanks. Well, that’s quite something, what could actually happen now?”
RK: “It’s possible that it will be removed from the mediatheque! [ed note: web site of the TV station where already aired shows can be accessed]. This part may well be excised.”
JB: “So if Turkey’s president has a problem with it, he would first have to get himself a lawyer.”
RK: “Yes, precisely.”
JB: “I can warmly recommend our jest lawyer to you, Dr. Christian Joke in Berlin [ed note: there is a prominent lawyer in Berlin specialized in media law, by the name of Christian Schertz. The phonetically similar word “Scherz” is the German word for “joke”. He’s actually Böhmermann’s lawyer as well, and an actor playing a “Dr. Christian Joke” frequently appears in gags on Böhmermann’s show].
RK: “He’s advising the mayor of Berlin as well!”
JB: “He’s advising the mayor of Berlin as well, our jest lawyer Dr. Christian Joke?”
RK: “He’s simply doing everything.”
JB: “Is he actually allowed to do that?”
RK: “He’s working for Atze, Pocher, and the mayor of Berlin.” [ed note: “Atze” is a German comedy character played by Hubertus Albers, Oliver Pocher is a German stand-up comedian and TV show host].
JB: “Our jest lawyer Dr. Christian Joke! Get yourself a lawyer, and tell him that you have seen something on TV you didn’t like – “abusive criticism” – and then you will first have to go to a district court. Preliminary injunction, cease-and-desist declaration….and then the program director, or the TV station that has broadcast this, will probably say: No, we are seeing this differently, and then one goes through all the appeals, and someday, in three or four years… What is important is this: You have to make sure that this doesn’t get out into the internet. Very important that these excerpts don’t…”
RK: “But nobody’s doing that anyway!”
JB: “No, nobody’s doing that. I can’t imagine that either.”
RK: “Normally, it’s available in the mediatheque.”
JB: “Yes, why would anyone want to post it on the internet then? Is that clear now?”
RK: “I believe so.”
JB: “I believe that’s really important.”
Erdoğan sure had it coming…and he apparently fails to realize that the ridiculous crusade against his critics only ensures that stuff like this gets a thousand times more exposure and attention than it otherwise would. And frankly, what are a few verbal insults compared to getting thrown into jail?
Ironically, as Donald Tusk has revealed in an interview, Erdoğan himself was once imprisoned for criticizing Turkey’s former rulers in the late 1990s – just as Tusk was once jailed for criticizing Poland’s communist rulers. He rightly points out that “the line between criticism, insult and defamation is very thin and relative” – and it should not be up to politicians to decide what is what.
Meanwhile, Mr. Böhmermann has been sacrificed on the altar of political expediency, at least for the moment. In the short term, his career has suffered a significant setback, since he is on a leave of absence now (the TV station is at least paying for his defense though). We suspect however that the affair could end up serving him well in the long term. For instance, he was actually unknown to us before this incident. Yes, the poem as such was tasteless and crude…but it has ultimately served a good purpose.
Addendum: More on Erdoğan
Below is John Oliver’s take on Erdoğan’s bizarre persecution of people he thinks are out to insult him (so far, it seems three people per day have been found to be Erdoğan critics worthy of prosecution, which is less than the 1,000 per day that must have insulted Stalin somehow…). Oliver inter alia notes that pointing out the similarities between Erdoğan and Gollum cannot possibly be considered an insult, since the similarities are simply undeniable.
The video also shows why Erdoğan is such a rich target for comedians…in fact, he is a bit of a comedian himself, even though he is probably not aware of it. Still, some of the things he’s saying certainly make one pause – did he really say that just now? Yes, he did.
John Oliver on insulting president Erdoğan
Here is one on Erdoğan’s grand palace (it has a thousand rooms, which is probably more than he knows what to do with):
The new presidential palace… befitting of a megalomaniac
And Erdoğan’s invitation to opposition politicians to hunt for the gilded toilet seat in his palace:
Erdoğan to opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu: this town ain’t big enough for the both of us… political careers are hanging in the balance – over a golden lavatory!