Here's why calling Turkey's president a "goat f-er" can land you in German prison

Image: Wikimedia / kremlin.ru

Image: Wikimedia / kremlin.ru

The president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has once again tried to meddle with press freedom in Germany. Not satisfied with pursuing prosecution for comedian Jan Böhmermann's slanderous satirical poem under an outdated German law from the Kaiserzeit, Erdoğan has now tried to silence commentary about the poem itself. 

The CEO of Axel Springer, which publishes some of Germany's most popular newspapers, came out in defence of Böhmermann's poem. In an open letter published in Welt am Sonntag, Mathias Döpfner said he stood by the star's words, noting that the piece from the Neo Magazin Royale TV show was intended to be extreme in order to prove a satirical point. 

"That's about as original and meaningful as accusing a Formula 1 carmaker that his cars are too fast," Döpfner said. "If I understood it correctly, the whole point of your poem was to be tasteless, primitive and insulting."

Shortly after the letter was printed, Erdoğan submitted an injunction request to stop Döpfner repeating some of the phrases used in the poem. This request was rejected on freedom of expression grounds. 

Yet the same relief has not been awarded to Jan Böhmermann, who faces prosecution for 'insulting a foreign leader', a law which German politicians are already scrambling to scrap. It comes with a maximum sentence of five years behind bars. While it's extremely unlikely Böhmermann would face such serious consequences if he were prosecuted, the threat of jail is enough to make any writer think twice. Journalists speak of a 'chilling effect' whenever their freedom of expression is seen as under threat due to heavy-handed regulation or an easily-offended foreign leader with lawyers on retainer. 

In fact, damage has already been done. Clearly, Erdoğan is not content with chasing after journalists 1,800 times in Turkish courts since 2014, so much so that he has to threaten writers and broadcasters in other countries too. 

The argument put forward by the president's lawyer in Germany, was that the first article of Germany's Basic Law (constitution) guarantees the right to "human dignity" above all else, including freedom of expression. 

Article One was created as a reaction to the humiliation Nazi Germany imposed on jews and other minorities, which viewed them as sub-human. It is not a tool by which foreign leaders should run from criticism, as if it were "the right not to be offended". 

Both the Böhmermann and Döpfner cases were preceded by a diplomatic spat over a song about the president for the comedy show Extra 3 and journalists have recently been thrown out of Turkey or banned from entering, including ARD's Volker Schwenck under the pretence of "security". After this latest twist, German journalists will be asking themselves whether to avoid writing about Erdoğan, so to avoid legal consequences. It's unacceptable that a foreign leader should be allowed to intimidate Germany's press.