(11j) Turkish president demands a punishment for comedian who insulted him

A political row was emerging between Germany and Turkey because of what a German comedian said about Turkish President Erdogan. As a reaction, President Erdogan demanded that the German government would take action against the comedian and PM Merkel allowed this to happen as I think should be done although troubles may return later. Here is why …

The comedian Jan B√∂hmermann deliberately insulted President Erdogan during a show on ZDF television in which he called the Turkish president some names and described him as someone watching child pornography but also accused the Turkish president of “repressing minorities, kicking Kurds and slapping Christians”. And this was not by accident because before he read the poem, he informed the public that it contained allegations that breached German rules on free speech and thus he knew (hoped?) actions could follow. Of course, sometimes laws need to be broken (e.g. when Hitler was in power) but I do not agree that here laws should have been broken for a number of reasons:

  • The Turkish president feels insulted and wants to go to court. This is important in a democracy. Indeed, if someone doesn’t feel insulted the issue can be ignored but people should be able to defend themselves. And sometimes, even when a person doesn’t feel insulted, someone else may still go to court to stop someone insulting someone else. To me, people who demand the absolute right for free speech should also accept the right of other people to feel insulted and go to court to defend themselves while the person who is accused of making the insults should accept the consequences when society judges that what was said was unacceptable. The court should decide. 
  •  An important reason why the president should be able to go to court is because the comedian claims the president watches child pornography. This is a very serious accusation that can’t be made lightly, certainly not now when it emerged that over the past decades many children were abused by a number of people working in high positions at some worldwide well-known and trusted institutions such as the BBC, the Roman Catholic Church and many other institutions. Instead of being an example, those people used their high position to protect themselves from being prosecuted. Still, it can also be used by people to break the career of opponents, even when they are innocent such as in the past when openly gay people couldn’t be teachers as it was believed they would abuse children. And thus, even in our Western society with its free speech, people will be angry when they are accused of paedophilia without proof and probably go to court to clean their name while even when declared not-guilty, often people will continue to doubt their innocence. 
  • Another point is that President Erdogan isn’t really a friend of journalists and he even closed some news agencies to silence criticism. And thus media people should not further alienate the president from the media by insulting him so distrust further increases but should be correct – and this can include criticising Turkey when there is evidence. Only when certain claims can be proven should they be made while trying to make the president even more angry may worsen the situation for Turkish journalists. 
  •  As the comedian indicated before the show, he knew a law exists that prohibits that foreign politicians are insulted and that he may go too far in insulting President Erdogan, as if he wanted to appear before court. And thus, as the Turkish president feels insulted and wants to complain, PM Merkel could only agree to refer the comedian to a court where judges can decide whether the comedian should be punished or not because everyone who feels insulted should be able to defend themselves in court. 
  • The insults may also be hidden Islamophobia and racism. I agree people can criticise extremists from all religion but that doesn’t mean mentioning what can be expected as deeply insulting in some cultures such as having sex with goats (reference to sex with the devil?).

Earlier I already mentioned that certain people confuse freedom of speech with the right to insult. But it is not only me who claim that absolute freedom of speech doesn’t exist as this the Guardian article shows in which the newspaper, which you may think would defend absolute freedom of speech, describes how its editors also remove certain comments from readers that they consider unacceptable. This includes insults or treats to their journalists but also to other readers who leave a comment. Some comments are too hurtful and/or don’t contribute to the discussion to allow, although they can inform about the direction society is heading. No-one likes to be insulted and certainly parents hope their children never have to face insults and abuse as they understand very well that this can destroy their child, even into adulthood, as it can make them insecure or even suicidal. Equally, although politicians should have a thicker skin and thus be able to accept criticism, this doesn’t mean they have to become so thick-skinned that they lose any feelings and become inhuman while when they decide to defend themselves against insults it may result in oppression. Indeed, as some journalists in the above (and this) Guardian article describe, hurtful comments stick to you:

To the person targeted, it can feel like the perpetrator is everywhere: at home, in the office, on the bus, in the street.

And thus, hurtful comments and abuse can change you, can silence you but equally can anger you, can make you paranoid and can make you want to silence those who insult you but also those who defend the abuser. Because those who make hurtful comments want to silence you as they don’t want to hear any other opinion than their own – while they are often the first who hate being the victim of abuse themselves:

Recent research by the Pew Centre found that not only had 40% of adults experienced harassment online but 73% had witnessed others being harassed. This must surely have a chilling effect, silencing people who might otherwise contribute to public debates – particularly women, LGBT people and people from racial or religious minorities, who see others like themselves being racially and sexually abused.

The article asks the question we all should ask: do we want such an internet and media where people can abuse each other, can tell lies and ultimately even destroy people and/or their career? I definitely have another idea of an open society where people can discuss issues in a polite way. Of course, this is a difficult issue because what one person finds hurtful others find not. It is mainly the way in which something is said or written that determines whether something is wrong or not. For instance, explaining in a polite way why you (dis)agree with something while allow a different polite response should be possible, even when it concerns difficult subjects such as religion or gender because how can people change if they cannot discuss things? But that is different from insulting people as that tries to silence others by causing harm.

And thus, like PM Merkel I think the comedian should face what he expected because he knew he was going to break the German law and thus appearing in court may even have been his intension.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that PM Merkel gave in to the Turkish president to save the refugee agreement between Turkey and the EU as many believe that is the reason why she decided that the comedian should appear in court. No, and as she explained, the comedian is referred to the court as the German law allows this when a Head of State complains - and no-one should be above the law. By being referred to a court, the comedian can explain why he think he wasn’t wrong when he read his poem while if he is condemned the judges can explain why they think he was wrong making these comments and why that doesn’t mean it is an attack on freedom of speech. But if he was not referred to a court, it would indicate that some people are above the law and are allowed to insult others, even presidents.

Of course, PM Merkel will face criticism now she refers the comedian to a court, certainly from people who like to insult others as they will fear they may no longer be able to do so without being referred to courts and thus will claim it is an assault on free speech while others are defending her decision. Still, it may result in getting enemies and as some claim, her downfall as PM. But that is what politicians sometimes have to accept. Because, whatever the outcome, this may continue to cause troubles, either if courts declare the comedian guilty and people from left and right may protest against PM Merkel for sacrificing him or if the comedian is not-guilty, there may be some Turkish (and other) people, even when born in Germany, who may be angry their president can be insulted unpunished. And it seems already Turkish embassies are collecting data of people who they think may insult Erdogan and thus in effect can no longer risk to visit Turkey.

But also a number of PM Merkel’s own minister such as foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and justice minister Heiko Maas claim freedom of speech should be defended although I’m not sure that any of them would accept a joke as tasteless as claiming they watch child pornography because they too may go to court. But maybe they understand much better than others that times moved on. PM Merkel may really believe that the law should be followed and thus that judges should decide on the guilt of Mr B√∂hmermann while it also liberates her from having to take the decision. But courts in Europe have become much more critical towards politicians who reduce human rights. Also elsewhere in Europe, dictators such as those from ex-Yugoslavia can no longer escape punishment for human right abuses. Another example was dictator Pinochet, arrested in Europe for the disappearance of people during his rule in Peru and who was only able to escape imprisonment after the intervention of old-fashioned politicians (a reason why many left-wing people still distrust people in power). And although it is not yet perfect, politicians in the West start to understand that leaders can no longer do as they wish without facing consequences while President Erdogan may still believe that people will be automatically convicted when they insult a president. Therefore, I think a number of politicians are against this trial because they fear that facts such as President Erdogan’s human rights record will be discussed publicly, something President Erdogan probably doesn’t want and thus may further damage relations with Turkey. Judges may agree human rights in Turkey are not perfect and thus the comedian may receive a lesser punishment as not everything he said were insults; even PM Merkel seemed to suggest there are human rights violation in Turkey. And when certain parts of the poem may result that the Turkish president is ridiculed throughout the Muslim world (while now many in the West ridicule PM Merkel), the president may still decide to stop the agreement between the EU and Turkey. Maybe Turkey may no longer want European tourists. It seems already Turkish embassies are hoping some Turkish people will report people who they think may insult Erdogan and thus in effect those people may no longer be able to visit Turkey. I think this trial can have major consequences if the judges can judge without political interference although they may face heavy lobbying from politicians to condemn the comedian.

I’m also not sure the comedian really understands the possible results of his actions: he may be condemned and punished with imprisonment although then many people will protest that he is silent. But if he is considered not-guilty, he may still feel the anger of politicians if his remarks may cause a worsening of the relations with Turkey. In addition, life for certain people in Turkey may become even more difficult.

The German government also considers to remove this law and this is up to Germany. The law can be used to prevent that people insult foreign Heads of States but equally may be used to silence people. I think that, if people feel insulted they should be able to go to court but this can be done under other laws and thus this particular law can be removed while still other laws allow others to go to court to defend someone they think is insulted. Indeed, people should be able to disagree with each other but without insulting one another while laws should exist that allow people go to court if they think they are insulted because such laws can deter some people from insulting others.

In conclusion, as the law existed, it needed to be followed. The comedian even expected this. As PM Merkel says, now judges can decide whether the comedian is guilty or not. People should expect the judges will make the correct decision as should be in a democracy. Only after the verdict people can decide what actions to undertake if they disagree. But if everyone thinks judges will make the wrong judgement, then the democracy no longer exists.


Jacque Ojadidi said…
Thanks for share this article
Free Earrings

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