Less Majesty, More Speech in Germany

May 12, 2016

430 words

Offense of the Month, May 2016

Have you heard the one about the president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan? No, that’s not an insult; that’s his name. But just about anything else said of him can land you in hot water in Turkey, where it’s a crime to insult the Turkish nation or government institutions. Erdogan has used the infamous Article 301 of the Turkish penal code more than 1,800 times to prosecute critics for insulting him. Sometimes not even critics — he went after a TV news network for running a headline “‘Dictator’ under Investigation” about name calling by an opposition leader (the news program put the word “dictator” in quotation marks to indicate it was simply reporting a statement made by somebody else). Made no never mind to Erdogan.

In early May he sought a preliminary injunction in Germany against the release of an open letter from the CEO of Axel Springer, one of the country’s leading media firms. The letter, written by Mathias Döpfner, supported the right of a comedian to ridicule Erdogan. The comic, Jan Böhmermann, mocked Erdogan in a long, sexually crude poem. Döpfner’s letter repeated some of Böhermann’s language. Erdogan’s lawyers pointed to an archaic provision of German law, paragraph 103 of its penal code, prohibiting insults to foreign leaders, a remnant of the old crime of lèse-majesté, once widespread, that counted as treason offending the dignity of the ruler.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has been reported as saying she would soon seek to repeal paragraph 103, although she allowed the injunction claim against Döpfner to go forward (under the law the courts cannot hear such a case without the chancellor’s go-ahead). But on May 10, a German court in Cologne refused to enjoin the letter, holding that it contributed to public debate about a controversial issue. Erdogan’s lawyers say he will appeal.

Americans should count ourselves lucky. There’s no lèse-majesté here, or you might find yourself prosecuted for the offensive suggestion that Donald Trump has fewer billions than he claims.

Addendum: Böhmermann’s poem included speculation that Erdogan has an STD contracted while having hircine sex.

Addendum 2 (May 21, 2016): Whatever Floats Your Goats: Cyberspace has been buzzing. Within days the British Spectator announced a “Most Offensive Erdogan Poem” competition, and the winner was crowned a couple of days ago: Boris Johnson, former mayor of London and now an MP (and, hmm, former editor of The Spectator), with a limerick that begins: “There was a young fellow from Ankara.” You can find the rest of it here.

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