Should satire ever be punished? Recent events in Turkey have led the public to answer this question with a resounding "no."
In March, a music video was put on the internet by the German comedy show extra3 that represented Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a thin-skinned authoritarian willing to suppress dissent. According to the New York Times article "Erdogan’s Attempt to Suppress German Satire Has the Opposite Effect," representatives from the Turkish government soon asked Germany to remove the video from the internet. The video was not removed, but news of Turkey’s request quickly spread and caused outrage.
This led Jan Böhmermann, a German comedian, to parody the action on the TV show Neo Magazin Royale. The clip shows Böhmermann mocking Ergodan for not knowing Germany has free speech laws while in conversation with another comedian pretending to be a lawyer. Böhmermann then points out that only abusive criticism is illegal in Germany, proceeding to read a poem titled "Abusive Criticism," which repeatedly insults Ergodan in a variety of ways.
After the performance, the Turkish government formally requested that Germany bring charges against Böhmermann under an old law which allows, though does not require, Germany to prosecute insults against foreign heads of state. An article from Financial Times titled "Merkel grants Turkey request to probe German comedian over poem" confirms that German Chancellor Angela Merkel will allow the investigation and prosecution, though she will try to repeal the outdated law.
The true nature of the issue can be better illustrated by an example from the U.S. In September, John Oliver, host of the HBO show "Last Week Tonight," did a segment titled "Migrants and Refugees" about the refugee crisis in Europe. Near the beginning of the video, Oliver made an obvious joke about British Prime Minister David Cameron, implying that he enjoys bestiality, before criticizing how Cameron characterized the millions of refugees coming to Europe from the Middle East in official statements.
Imagine if the U.S. government gave Cameron approval to bring charges against Oliver for slander through the U.S. judicial system in response. This would obviously be an infringement on Oliver’s free speech and an abuse of power by a foreign minister to quell criticism abroad. Virtually everyone would find this completely immoral and unacceptable, not to mention petty and tyrannical.
However, this is what is happening between Turkey and Germany. Despite the complicated politics of the issue, we cannot forget that such actions must be opposed by those who value freedom of expression and the ability to dissent politically.
Why would Germany allow such an obvious infringement of freedom of speech instigated by a foreign president? Well, the Financial Times article also reports that Turkey is using its recent refugee agreement with the European Union to influence the country. Under the agreement, Turkey will take in refugees which had previously been going to Europe in exchange for billions of dollars of aid and reopening discussion to allow the country into the E.U.
The agreement has already drastically reduced the number of refugees entering Germany, which is a growing point of contention in German politics. The same article reports that the rising number of refugees had fueled the far-right Alternative für Deutschland political party, which saw huge gains throughout the refugee crisis and is still on the rise. This party is opposed to Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party, making the agreement a valuable political move, regardless of the human consequences. Turkey knows this is an important agreement for Merkel’s party and is seemingly using it to pressure the German government.
Moreover, Erdogan also has a history of severe censorship within Turkey. To take a very recent example, according to last month’s Human Rights Watch article "Turkey: Academics Jailed For Signing Petition," three academics were imprisoned and another 57 were dismissed or suspended from their positions for signing a petition that decried the government’s campaign against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a Kurdish resistance group in Turkey, as repressive to the civilian population.
These actions demonstrate Erdogan is not afraid to censor dissent within Turkey and is willing to pressure other governments to suppress negative comments made by comedians. Further, Merkel will allow this, at least partially, since she likely believes it will help her political party keep power over far-right alternatives.
This willingness to flout freedom of speech while negotiating international politics is alarming and must be opposed. We should stand with anyone who is willing to criticize tyrannical actions, no matter what words they decide to