Poetic justice? The politics of comedy

17 Apr 2016


It would be comforting for many if the last year or four in global politics was in fact an elaborate live political sketch show. Imagine for a moment that Pig-Gate, Donald Trump’s presidential bid and the farcical handling of the EU Referendum were all just an elaborate product of Charlie Brooker’s imagination, some dark joke on the state of the world. Sadly, this is something we can only dream of. However, the political landscape has now literally entered into the world of comedy.


Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel has confirmed that comedian Jan Boehmermann will undergo a criminal inquiry after reciting a satirical poem on ZDF television that made sexual references to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the President of Turkey. Perhaps then, I was wrong. Perhaps politics is in fact a comic puppet show, one in which Turkey is currently pulling all of Germany’s strings. It seems surprising, after all, that the German government has decided to go ahead with an inquiry on the comedian’s actions because of a rarely enforced law, so rarely enforced in fact that they intend to repeal the article in 2018.


The article itself relates to the insulting of a foreign head of state and seems like a clearly outdated criminal code. Satire is by definition insulting, it is used to ridicule and criticise. Political satire therefore will insult political figures - this includes heads of states. Why then is this obscure article being enforced? Was this poem a targeted attack on the Turkish President, overtly slanderous and unimaginably offensive? No. Boehmermann recited this poem as part of a wider critique on Germany’s freedom of speech rules and restrictions. So yes, it was explicitly breaking a law, an outdated, unused and unenforced law, but he was not using this poem principally to attack Erdogan. He was attacking the German system.


I think Reuters summed it up perfectly with the headline "A dirty - not particularly funny - poem just turned into an ‘international crisis.' " Merkel is allowing Erdogan to throw his toys out of the pram because he holds all the power regarding the refugee crisis. The EU has bowed down to Turkey and given money, political promises, and now this. Merkel is carrying out this inquiry because she's scared. She's scared that one wrong step and we’ll actually have to find a permanent solution to the biggest crisis Europe has faced in recent history.


What is so blatantly absurd about this situation is the context of the whole joke. It could easily have been centred on the President of Turkey - his country is in headline after headline and he has made many controversial decisions regarding free speech. Yet this poem was merely used as part of a wider critique on Germany’s laws. Ever since the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks Europe has collectively fought for the rights of individuals to speak freely and express personal opinions without fear of persecution or prosecution. It is important that this right is not threatened in any way, especially within the Fourth Estate.


The press (and in this case a public and political critic) hold all members of society to account, whether in a religious, political or social context. Merkel, by enforcing this law, shows how little she respects the moral ideals the EU and its members find crucial to society. Worse than this though, the decision to follow this line of inquiry is obviously pandering to the whims of a man who knows he holds all the power. Let's take the aforementioned Pig-Gate as an example. The Prime Minister of a country was written about in an offensive, graphic and sexual way. The claims were rejected by said Prime Minister and yet no legal action was taken because he was, in his own words “too busy running the country." Cartoons, memes and a plethora of Twitter jokes circulated for weeks on end and it seemed the whole country was laughing at its political leader. This was free speech at its hysterical best.


It is a terrible shame that an entertainer and satirist is being punished because of a delicate, politically charged situation. The law is there to uphold society's morals and values. It is not there to be used as a tool to improve a country’s bilateral relationships. Chancellor Merkel wants the Turkey agreement to work. A lot. But that is not an excuse to abuse her position of power, and silence those who dare to hold the political class to account.

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