Friday, April 15, 2016

The Turkey rules the Roost: How Recep Erdogan came run things in Germany

           So. . .

             Having destroyed freedom of speech in Turkey, it now looks like Recep Erdogan wants to destroy it in Germany as well. Don’t laugh: he just might.

            According to the Guardian It started when a comedian named Jan Böhmermann read out a less than flattering poem about Erdogan on German television. The legendarily thin-skinned Erdogan went crying to Angela Merkel, demanding Bohmermann be prosecuted. After which Merkel, as leader of one of the world’s strongest democracies, told Erdogan in uncertain terms to screw off, right?


            No actually. She frumped disapprovingly over this “deliberately offensive text”, which is only to be expected in diplomatic circles. After all, what is one world leader supposed to say to another? But it would never go to trial. Would it?

             Well. . .there is a law. Paragraph 103 of the Criminal Code forbids insulting representatives of foreign states. And there are some German politicians who seem quite keen to enforce it. No less than the general secretary of the Merkel's party Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Peter Tauber exclaimed:

“In a constitutional democracy we all have to stick to the rules, and one of these rules is that offending foreign heads of state is punishable by law,”  

              Wow. Nobody tell Kim Jong Un.

              Isn’t it interesting that Mr. Tauber thinks protecting the delicate feelings of foreign despots is more integral to Constitutional Democracy than upholding the rights of its own citizens? And why am I not surprised that a politician would want to enforce a law designed to protect politicians from ridicule?  

              Granted, I’m no lawyer, but all the same, I’m at a loss as to how German lawmakers figured this little stipulation was consistent with Constitutional Democracy. Basically, it means that any tin-pot dictator’s cult of personality is technically enforceable in Germany.
I hope it doesn’t have an extradition treaty with any of these places.

            That’s the obvious part. But there is a little worm in the ointment that complicates things a little. It doesn’t change anything, but it complicates it just a bit. Let’s look at what Böhmermann actually said. Like all the best comedians, most of what he said is true. He accuses Erdogen of “repressing minorities” – true! – “kicking kurds” – true! – “slapping Christians” – true! – “while watching child porn” – oh dear.

            Accusing someone of watching child porn is not a small thing, and it’s only natural that Erdogen would take exception to it. It muddies the waters because it takes us from the realm of political commentary into the world of slander and libel, where, under most juristictions, Erdogen would have a much stronger case.

              What is libel? The technical definitions vary, but it basically amounts to false accusation, or defamation, or falsehoods that could damage a reputation. Spurious accusation of child pornography could destroy a life just as thoroughly as a physical assault, so laws are in place to prevent them being made willy-nilly.
Newspapers have to be super careful when reporting on such things; it’s why in criminal trials, even where the evidence seems overwhelming, the crime is always “alleged” and the defendant is always “the accused”.

             A chief defense against libel law is that of “fair-comment”. It is fair to comment on certain things and express an opinion. So, for example, in a restaurant review, you are free to say it’s a lousy restaurant, but not that they put rats in the stew. The former is just your opinion; the later is a lie.[1] The former is fair comment, the latter would be slander. I wonder if Böhmermann has opened himself up to a charge of slander, rather nullifying his fair (and necessary) political comment with a cheap (and not-terribly funny) joke.

             The existence of libel law – in theory – shouldn’t amount to a limitation on your freedom of expression. You are free to speak the truth. You do have to prove that it is the truth. Which strikes me as only fair and reasonable: say what you will, but be prepared to back up your words.  I personally have always thought of freedom of expression as the ability to speak the truth rather than the ability to blab: but as one man’s truth is another man’s blabbery, the definition should be as inclusive as possible and come with as few external fetters as possible.

            Unfortunately, libel law is often used to limit freedom of expression, and limit the truth. In Britain, anybody can sue anybody for just about anything. The British Chiropractic Association sued Dr. ___________ for telling the British public that chiropractic is full of shit[2]. He didn’t slander them: all he did was publish the data. In my home town, developers have sued residents for speaking out against them – their case was weak, but they were counting on their victims to be unable to bear the court costs. In the hands of the rich, this law, like most others can be a gag for the poor.

            But libel law isn’t the only gag available to the psychotically insecure, and dictators aren’t the only ones ins search of them. I don’t even know if Erdogen’s going for libel. What interests me is that laws exist in democratic countries which give foreign dictators a measure of control over their citizenry, and many people seem happy to relinquish this control. Germany isn’t the only place with such laws on the books: Italy, Poland and Switzerland have them too, and in Britain’s it’s still technically illegal to call for abolishing the monarchy in print. Not so long ago, many people happily conceded that the Ayatolah Komeny should have the power of life and death over British citizens. Many seem to think the Charlie Hebo staff had it coming. Ireland still has blasphemy laws on its books. In Canada, citizens can be hauled before “Human Rights Tribunals” without legal representation, for any perceived slight. Some conservatives want to criminalize criticism of Israel (anti-semitism), and some liberals want to criticise criticism of Islam (Islamophobia) and both call for ever expanding the hate speech or obscenity laws.

           Meanwhile, bloggers have been arrested and lashed by their government in Saudi Arabia[3], or lynched by their countrymen in Bangladesh for the despicable crime of expressing their thoughts. Both must have known the risks and both thought them worth taking. Courageous people the world over are dying for what we in the first world are quite relinquishing. How inspiring and sickening it is at the same time.   

Update:  Merkel's caved in, and is letting the prosecution go ahead: 

Most concerning is this little quote from the CDU Parliamentary Faction leader:

“In a constitutional democracy, it is up to the courts to decide where the boundaries lie."

So, the courts get to decide the limits of satire, and the limits of speech, and the limits of thought. Has the Parliamentary Faction leader considered that the courts decide such things in dictatorships as well?

Autocrats of the world, rejoice!

[1] Assuming of course they don’t actually do this – but even if they did, you’d need damn good evidence for it before committing it to print. You’d be better off just repeating what other people say.
[2] Fortunately, Dr.___________ is also a best-selling author, and so happened to have the resources to fight back. Many do not.
[3] Which Canada’s Liberal government is happily selling a billion dollars worth of armoured cars to. 

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