Fact of the Week: German government allows criminal investigation of German satirist

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Friday, 15 April that, while she will permit a criminal investigation into the comedian Jan Böhmermann on charges that he insulted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, she would work towards overturning the “outdated” law in question arguing that artistic freedom was an “elementary” right.

Turkey made a formal request to the German government the previous Monday to file charges against Böhmermann, who, on a  ZDF – a German public broadcaster – satirical show recited on air a poem which makes crude sexual references about Turkey’s leader, accusing the Turkish President of paedophilia and bestiality. The poem obvious intent was to highlight the issue of insulting Mr. Erdogan, a charge that has repeatedly been levelled in Turkey.

A special paragraph of Germany’s criminal code – paragraph 103 – allows foreign government to request the prosecution of German citizens following perceived insults of representatives or symbols of a foreign state. According to the following paragraph, it is then up to the government to grant or deny permission for prosecutors to go ahead on the request.

In her announcement on Friday, Merkel said that, after examination of Turkey’s request by the foreign, justice and interior ministries and her own office, the decision was that “the government will grant permission in this case.”

Merkel’s message on Friday appeared to be that while she was compelled by the law to allow the case to move forward, she highly disagreed with the law and planned to overturn it before elections next year.

The case against Böhmermann plays on broader concerns about media freedom in Turkey and Europe’s position following the March’s deal on the refugee crisis. While more than 80 percent of Germans are opposed to the investigation, according to a poll published by Die Welt, Many German legal scholars have also argued there was little legal basis for Merkel to block the case. If found guilty, Jan Böhmermann could face a three-year jail sentence or, more likely, a fine.

In her announcement Merkel reiterated that the Freedom of expression and artistic freedom are “elementary for pluralism and democracy,” to western values as is the independence of the courts from politics. That means that, in her view, the case against Böhmermann is to be decided by the judiciary, not politics. “Under the rule of law, it is not the job of the government but of prosecutors and the courts to weigh personal rights and other concerns against freedom of the press and of the arts,” she stated. As widely critised her judgement may be, her decision to let the courts decide on Böhmermann’s case makes a political statement in itself, thus setting herself apart from the Turkish President.