In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s inability to take a joke may hardly be news. But after the Turkish government asked for the prosecution of a German comedian for performing a satirical poem about its president, it is now well known in Germany, too.
Coming shortly after the European Union’s “refugee swap” deal with Turkey took effect, the row has not only triggered a debate about the limits of free speech in Germany but also raised questions of whether Europe has made itself too reliant on the moods of Turkey’s strongman president, who is engaged in a crackdown on the media in Turkey.
In a short clip from a late-night programme screened on the German state broadcaster ZDF at the end of last month, comedian Jan Böhmermann sits in front of a Turkish flag beneath a small, framed portrait of Erdoğan, reading out a poem that accuses the Turkish president of, among other things, “repressing minorities, kicking Kurds and slapping Christians while watching child porn”.
The scene was broadcast shortly after it emerged that Turkey had demanded the deletion of another satirical song from the German comedy show extra3, and Böhmermann’s poem was deliberately framed as a test of the boundaries of satire. Throughout his reading the comedian is advised by a “media lawyer” who tells him that this is precisely the sort of thing that does not qualify as satire.