In my first two weeks in Kansas City, I have noticed that freedom of speech and press freedom don’t come up for discussion too often.
People talk about tax issues, legislative problems and various crimes. But not free speech.
That’s not true elsewhere, however, and let me explain why you should care about this.
Last month, Turkey summoned Germany’s ambassador to explain a song that had been aired on a German TV show. It was a satire program, and the song was about Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan.
But satire is no laughing matter for the Turkish leader. He constantly sues cartoonists, journalists and his own citizens for insulting him.
Turkey’s justice minister announced in March that 1,845 cases have been opened against people accused of insulting the president since he came to office in 2014.
Just after Turkey issued its summons, a German comedian named Jan Boehmermann said the song in the video could be protected by Germany’s freedom of speech law.
Boehmermann then suggested that his own abusive poem about Erdogan would not be protected under German law. He read a very offensive and absurd text that accused the president of being a zoophile and sodomite.
Erdogan’s lawyers immediately found an article in German defamation law (they are really good at this) to sue Boehmermann. According to that law, whoever insults a foreign head of state could face imprisonment up to three years or a fine.
But to sue him, the Turkish president’s supporters needed the permission of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. And last week, she gave it.
Her opponents and the vast majority of European media criticized Merkel and said her decision went against free speech values.
Here is the tricky part.
Turkey and its leaders play a critical role in the European Union’s plan to deal with immigrants.And if she had refused to prosecute, she could have jeopardized that plan.
Because she didn’t want to do that, she tried another way.
“Granting this lawsuit for insulting a foreign head of state means neither a prejudgment of the person affected nor a decision about the limits of freedom of art, the press and opinion,” Merkel said.
She allowed the prosecution to go on but reminded everyone about the “rule of law.”
There is a positive twist to this story. The diplomatic dust-up has led to some European countries reforming their laws. Holland is preparing to eliminate the possibility of charging people for insulting foreign leaders. And Germany is looking at doing something similar.
Meanwhile, Erdogan’s lawsuit has helped bring more attention to the “terrible poem” all around Europe. Comedian John Oliver aired a mocking video. The English magazine Spectator started a competition featuring limericks that mocked the Turkish president.
It seems the case has backfired on him.
The discussion about the poem also points out how bad press freedom is in Turkey. Reporters Without Borders released the 2016 World Press Freedom Index on Wednesday. Turkey ranked 151st out of 180 countries.
This is a shame for a unique secular and democratic state.
This provides a lesson for all who live in Kansas City: Don’t joke about the Turkish president.
Gokce Aytulu is an Alfred Friendly Fellow from Turkey. The Star will be his host between April and September. Twitter: @GokceAytulu