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German Broadcaster Protests Government's Decision to Allow Prosecution of Comedian

The German authorities have opened a criminal investigation into satirist satirist Jon Boehmermann for mocking Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan on his TV show, which violates a Germany law against insulting foreign leaders.

by Tess Owen
Apr 16 2016, 8:25pm

A composite image of two file photos of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Left), and of German ZDF Neo host Jan Boehmermann (Right). (Ole Spata/EPA & Turkish Presidential Press Office Handout/EPA)

German public broadcaster ZDF is standing up for satirist Jan Boehmermann, who could face criminal charges for reading an insulting poem about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on German television.

Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is receiving heavy criticism from members of her cabinet for ceding to Ankara's demands on Friday by giving prosecutors the green light to pursue charges against Boehmermann.

In the poem, Boehmermann muses over the size of Erdogan's penis, and suggests that the Turkish president watches child pornography and engages in bestiality, among other sexual proclivities. The German satirist also mockingly accused Erdogan of "kicking Kurds", "slapping Christians," and "repressing minorities," among other things. The video of Boehmermann reciting the poem, while perched beneath a Turkish flag and a small portrait of Erdogan, was first broadcast on the non-profit ZDF's Neo channel last month.

The German criminal code prohibits insults leveraged against foreign leaders, but says that transgressions can be prosecuted on a case-by-case basis. The authority to pursue prosecution is left in the hands of the government.

Boehmermann addresses this section of the criminal code during the short video. The Guardian noted that throughout the performance, Boehmermann is "advised by another comedian impersonating a media lawyer, who tells him this poem is precisely the sort of thing that does not qualify as satire and is therefore illegal."

Related: German Comedians Are Making Turkey's President Really, Really Upset

Erdogan demanded that Germany press charges against Boehmermann — placing Merkel in an awkward position. Keeping up good relations with Turkey is critical for the German chancellor, as the country is now hosting more than one million refugees and migrants, and seeks to have Turkey stem the flow of people from war-torn countries fleeing to Western Europe. Last month's controversial European Union deal to deport and resettle in Turkey migrants who arrive to Europe's borders has yet to get off the ground.

The incident with Boehmermann has renewed criticisms that Merkel has been far too willing to ignore human rights abuses and press freedoms in Turkey to secure Ankara's cooperation.

The German chancellor announced her decision in a televised statement on Friday.

"Turkey is a country with which Germany has close and friendly ties," Merkel said.

And Turkish officials want to make sure Merkel stays true to her word.

"We want to see the result of this case and don't want to say anything about it at this stage," a senior Turkish official told Reuters.

Christian Schertz, the satirist's lawyer, described Merkel's decision as "completely unnecessary," adding that Erdogan had already filed a separate legal complaint against Boehmermann.

This isn't the first time that Boehmermann, 35, has landed in hot water for pushing the boundaries with satire. Last year he manipulated a video of Greece's former finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, giving the middle finger (known as the "Stinkefinger" in German) to Berlin for their tough approach to the debt crisis. German officials were furious.

Related: Seized Turkish Newspaper Transformed Overnight Into Pro-Government Mouthpiece

A recent YouGov poll sought to gauge German opinion on the Boehermann incident. About 71 percent of people who had viewed the original poem on television when it was first broadcast thought it was appropriate. Presumably the majority of people who viewed the original poem enjoy the type of satire which is characteristic of Boehermann's shows. Overall however, just 48 percent of respondents found it "appropriate."

But overall opinion about the poem doesn't reflect how people felt about Merkel giving the go-ahead to prosecutors. About two thirds of respondents thought Merkel acted inappropriately.Boehermann is now reportedly under police protection and cancelled his most recent show on ZDF.

Germany's Social Democratic Party leader in Parliament,Thomas Oppermann, told Reuters the decision to open a criminal investigation is the "wrong decision," and that "prosecution of satire due to 'les majeste' [the crime of violating or insulting a sovereign ruler] does not fit with modern democracy."

At the same time as Germany opened the investigation, Deutsche Welle reported that Merckel announced Friday that "her government will draft a proposal to replace the current law that criminalizes insulting foreign heads of state, making it 'dispensable in the future.'"