Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The disingenuous German defense of a comedian against Erdogan

The amount of ink and electricity expended by German media on the comedian who allegedly insulted Turkish President Erdogan may be enough to print all of Gaza's newspapers for a year and cover most its power needs.

The K-Landnews calls Mr. B. a comedian, not a satirist. Germany has some satirists, and we cannot find a good reason to classify Mr. B. as such.Mr. B., as we call him for short out of laziness, offers the style and content of what we would have called a court jester in the old days, or as the licensed fool.

In the politically astute world of German public broadcasting, a few late night time slices have been earmarked for comedy/satire, one of which is occupied by Mr. B. on the second nation wide channel ZDF. This is where he broadcast a "denigrating poem" a couple of weeks ago relating to Erdogan.
As described by Der Spiegel, Böhmermann sparked headlines around the world after his satire show "Neo Magazin Royal" broadcast a poem mocking Erdogan in the most below-the-belt manner possible last Thursday. In the poem, aired by Mainz-based public broadcaster ZDF, Erdogan is mocked for being a "professional idiot, cowardly and uptight" and is disparaged as having had sex with animals.

What hardly anybody explained was how the episode came about and how it was set up. The episode followed on the heels of another comedy show by one of the rival ARD broadcasters (extra3), which had included a funny song about Erdogan. That song became very popular on social media and was eventually given Turkish subtitles. It mocked Erdogan without pulling a transgression.
The ZDF Mr. B. show was thus really nothing but sloppy seconds, and - naturally - had to top the fun song. The makers of the ZDF show (B. is the anchor but has writers and support staff) knew the German limits on "free speech" very well, because they prefaced the denigrating poem with a statement that explained, no, denigrating speech is illegal under German law. So, this following kind of speech would be illegal. Then B. proceeded to present the poem.

The broadcast did not make waves before the ZDF leadership pulled the episode from its web site (April 1). Initial public outrage was focused on the action of ZDF and the statement by its chief that the episode "fell short of the broadcaster's quality standards".

Some in the media and a large segment of the public cried censorship.

Which it was. And not for the first time.

ZDF reversed the decision and put the episode back up. **

At this point in time, the lines of discourse in Germany were still very much as expected. Conservatives mostly called the episode childish, and even Chancellor Merkel, reacting to the first wave of Turkish criticism, called it "intentionally hurtful", as reported on April 4.

As Turkey called for prosecution of B. for insulting the president, Germans began a debate about what section of the penal code this might fall under. The obvious choice was section 103, which classifies "insulting a foreign head of state" as a felony punishable by up to several years in prison.

An old journalist then pointed out the history of this section: it had been tailor made to protect the then Shah of Iran. The Shah was not liked by many Germans and by Iranians who had fled his regime in the 1960s and 70s. The German state, however, and most of the conservatives were rather fond of the torturing monarch and added the specific clause to the penal code.

Official Germany went "oops" and changed over to the generic "insult" section 185.

Debate about the comedy episode, fueled by the wobbling of ZDF, Ms. Merkel's reaction and Erdogan filing a complaint with German prosecutors, then shifted to highlight  the obvious problems stemming from the handling or mishandling of the refugee crisis, especially the deal of the EU with Turkey to take back refugees for several billion euros in cash.

As the debate raged on, German media took note of the fact that even the most minor criticism of Erdogan gets you a prosecution in Turkey.

Suddenly, even German outlets less than enthusiastic or outright critical of B.'s stunt went into "we cannot be like Turkey" mode. Others pointed out the repeated satires of Ms. Merkel in some more or less harsh Nazi/World War II setting, in uniform etc., for example, by Greek publications during the height of the Greek debt crisis.

And thus, German media from liberal to conservative rallied around the "we are better than Turkey" and "tit for tat".

Satire in Germany has come under successful attack in the recent past, not to mention the latter part of the 20th century. For example, in 2012, when magazine Titanic published a title with then Pope Benedict in a white robe stained by a yellow spot in the area of the private parts addressed by Mr. B., too, German courts declared that cover and the back of the magazine issue to be "damaging to the personality rights" of the Pope.

The K-Landnews has posted on German comedy/satire before and claims that TV series South Park could not have originated in Germany: they would have been sued out of existence at the time.

Smart observers have also asked the crucial question: If Mr. B.'s poem had been directed at a German politician, what would have happened?

Insults of German politicians on Facebook are routinely brought to court under different provisions of the penal code, from insult to hate speech.

Germany's highest court declared only in 2015 that speech insulting police as a group, specifically F*CK Cops on a t-shirt, was legal because it was not directed at a specific, identifiable member of the group.

A journalist in Greece was convicted of insulting Ms. Merkel in 2012 and sentenced to a fine of 25 000 Euros.

After it transpired last night that Mr. B. was put under police protection, any remaining possibility of an indictment for insulting Erdogan has evaporated.

If an "insult" can be a felony in your country, don't complain that the provision is exploited.

In the overall context of the squabble, the relative lack of attention to events in Turkey on the part of most German media outlets strikes the blogster as much more important and damaging.
Proven support of Islamist radicals in Syria and Iraq was hardly mentioned until recently. For a long time, the plight of the Kurdish people was presented mostly as "terrorist" PKK versus the legitimate state for a long time.

[Update 5/18/2016] A superior court in the German city of Hamburg handed down a ban on parts of the "poem", following to a large extent the complaint by Mr. Erdogan. As Die Welt reports, Mr. B. would now be unable to quote some 95% of the "poem". The court stated that Mr. Erdogan had to tolerate even harsh criticism but that abusive slander or degrading statements crossed the line.

This decision is very much in line with "generic" German on German cases.

Mr. B. can appeal the decision.

The final outcome, though, remains uncertain because of the case's political dimension.

[Update] Fixed the usual suspects: typos, grammar.
[Update 4/14/2016] Correction: It is on YouTube, not the ZDF web site. That's still being debated.

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