Most are familiar with the rudimentary characteristics of any legitimate, liberal democracy—freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of religion (or the freedom from religion, if you’re French), etc. Those qualities are what make a liberal regime and are basic human rights that governments in North America and Europe believe ought to be had by all.
Yet despite being one of the most preeminent pillars of democratic ideology and western culture, the right of free speech, it seems, is of little import to Chancellor Merkel. The German head of state recently appeased the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his wishes that the Germans prosecute a comedian who violated an anachronistic, seldom enforced law that forbids Germans from publically insulting foreign leaders— a concerning gesture affirming that the West may be more desperate to solve short term political problems than to defend their base ethics, and one that we all should reflect upon.
On March 31, a German comedian named Jon Böhmermann recited a lewd, blatantly offensive “poem” defaming the Turkish President on German television. The performance immediately drew controversy, not so much for the content of the piece (which, if you read the manuscript, is almost tastelessly vulgar), but for its political implications. Böhmermann seemingly knew the consequences of the German legal code and was trying to test Merkel’s commitment to upholding the freedom of speech against Erdogan’s low tolerance for political criticism– and she chose to forego free speech.
Turkish officials demanded that Böhmermann face punishment for violating the archaic German policy. And Merkel, to the disappointment of many, issued a wishy-washy statement that essentially gave the go-ahead for the Turkish President to pursue a lawsuit against the satirist that could result in him spending time in prison, according to the BBC.
So why should you care? Well, this event is overshadowed by a complicated international political situation that would suggest that the Germans are more willing to strengthen intrastate relationships than to defend their values.
The first of said overshadowing factors is the changing political landscape in Turkey. The current regime has become known for suing journalists and media figures that try to either criticize or lampoon its policies. Its political agenda has, over the course of his tenure, limited the freedom of the press and has shown other not-so-subtle inklings of authoritarianism. Thus, one can hardly blame the Turksih President for imposing his influence in this situation– one can, though, be disappointed and surprised at the powerful Germany abetting Ankara’s persecution of political critics.
Secondly, this mutual condemnation of a basic mainstay of free speech “suspiciously” comes in the aftermath of a Euro-Turkish deal in which the European powers ceded way too much to convince the Turks to limit the flow of migrants that enter the E.U. vis-à-vis Turkey—something many feel that Ankara, under to the (albeit toothless) network of international law, ought to be doing anyway.
Again, it is deplorable that Merkel is letting Erdogan pursue this in her own country. Remember, it is not as if Böhmermann went to Turkey and publicly aired the vulgar criticism—this happened in Germany. If, hypothetically, he had gone to Turkey and delivered such a performance, knowing good and well that the nation has different laws and standards when it comes to the freedom of expression, then some sort of repercussions would be more conceivable (but not excusable, mind you).
But he didn’t. He did it in Germany, one of the foremost democratic powers in the entire world. That he faces retribution from a foreign leader from within his own borders sends a message that Germany needs to rethink its policymakers’ competence in standing for their basic, Western principles.
In her defense, this was a pretty uncomfortable situation for Merkel. The relationship between Germany and Turkey is very important, especially now, in the height of the migrant crisis. But she shouldn’t softly consent that a comedian be prosecuted for a routine in order to stay on Ankara’s good graces. The freedom of speech includes satire and political criticism– that somebody may be punished for exercising that freedom in a major Western power should concern us all.