Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has spent the last two years as head of state ensuring that if someone insults him, he doesn’t just find about it — he does something about it.
A doctor compares him to the fictional character of Gollum? Bring him to court. A teenage student questions his authority at a school assembly? Have him spend the night in jail. German comedian Jan Böhmermann sits beneath a framed portrait of Erdogan while on a German television show and reads a satirical poem accusing him of watching child porn and repressing Turkish minorities, including Christians? Demand that Berlin prosecute him.
On Friday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who needs Turkey’s support in the ongoing refugee crisis, ceded to Erdogan’s request
“In a constitutional democracy, weighing up personal rights against freedom of the press and freedom of expression is not a matter for governments, but for public prosecutors and courts,” Merkel said while announcing she has authorized German prosecutors to move forward with the case if they choose to.
Böhmermann knew when he performed the poem on German broadcaster ZDF on March 31 that it could land him in hot water. Erdogan doesn’t let insults slide, and under German law, it is technically illegal to insult the representative of a foreign government. If a foreign leader wants to press charges against an individual for the insult, the German government needs to authorize it.
Merkel agrees the German comedian’s poem, inspired in part by Turkey’s earlier complaints about a separate satirical video, “Erdowie, Erdowa, Erdogan” that aired on German public broadcaster NDR last month, was “deliberately offensive.” Turkey summoned Berlin’s ambassador for a tongue-lashing over the original video, in a move that was seen as an attempt to export his crackdown on press freedom. Erdogan’s latest demands that he be able to prosecute Böhmermann appear to be a further extension of that exportation.
Merkel insisted Friday that her decision to let the prosecution move forward does not indicate she thinks Böhmermann is innocent or guilty, and said she hoped to take legal steps toward removing that provision from Germany’s criminal code.
So the ball won’t be entirely in Erdogan’s court: It’s now up to Germany’s public prosecutors to decide if they want to take up the case. Even if that happens, it’s the German courts that will determine whether Böhmermann is actually guilty of breaking German law.