Para. 103: More Bark Than Bite

Monday, April 25th, 2016

Many Germany observers are confused these days by the so-called Böhmermann Affair: Jan Böhmermann has his own show, called Neo Magazin Royale, on the German public television network ZDF, and on March 31 he recited on-air a poem concerning Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that was not so nice, including as it did i.a. several references to the President’s alleged sexual practices. Top officials of the Turkish government, including Erdoğan personally, lobbied the German government to press criminal charges against Böhmermann; Angela Merkel herself eventually announced that the German State would indeed give its required go-ahead for a criminal investigation of Böhmermann for insulting a foreign Head of State.

What is going on with Germany? Isn’t it the country which, for some time now, has topped all opinion polls for world-wide admiration. This abridgement of elementary freedom of speech seems to hark back to the bad old Nazi times.

Not really, though; if anything, it harks back to the mid-1950s, when after a decade of Allied occupation Germany was getting back on its feet as an independent Western country. The former Shah of Iran – were he still around – would be glad to remind us of how speech in modern Germany is far from fully free.

Shah
Indeed, that paragraph of German federal law under which Böhmermann might be prosecuted – paragraph 103 StGB, forbidding “the insulting of organs and representatives of foreign States” – was for quite a while known as the Shah-paragraph, so often did the Persian monarch use it in his relations with the Federal Republic.

But first back to 1953, when German criminal law, having been suspended since that country’s defeat in 1945, is being restored – and authorities take care to re-institute paragraph 103, which dates back to Second Reich, that is, to the rule of German Emperors following the country’s unification in 1871. The political system of post-WWII Germany naturally was carefully designed by the occupying powers to try to ensure that such dictatorship as was seen during the Nazi regime could never happen again; for one thing, the peculiar American concept of federalism was introduced, so that the country was broken up into individual states each having rights and powers at their own local level.

But this new Germany was by no means designed to be any sort of liberal paradise with the world’s greatest personal freedoms. People’s memories were still fresh in 1953, only eight years after the Nazis’ gross crimes against humanity had been ended, and Germany was still to some degree a pariah state. There was no room, in other words, for the inevitable satirists and smart-alecks which such a fertile culture would inevitably produce to spoil the German government’s attempts to get back into the world’s good graces by ill-conceived, badly timed and just plain rude cross-border insults. Indeed, in 1958 Konrad Adenauer’s government wanted to go even further to prevent that sort of thing, namely to adding a paragraph 103a which would have outlawed the spreading of any sort of denigrating reference concerning the private lives of foreign heads of state or their families – whether true or not.

That extension was rejected by the Bundestag, the lower house of Germany’s federal parliament. But even in rejection the proposed law had a name: Lex Soraya, or “Soraya’s Law,” after the Persian Empress who was the Shah’s second wife, whom he was busy divorcing.

Nobody Cares; Nobody Really Punished

So the Shah lacked that extra bit of legal machinery to go after critics in Germany who said something insulting about his wives. But paragraph 103 gave him plenty of leeway to file charges against those insulting him personally, and he did so in three instances, the first in 1958. The same stricture applied, of course, against insults directed at other countries’ representatives, but the interesting point in this taz.de article is rather how the very prospect of such a foreign head of state complaining often caused the German police to move in ahead of the game and start confiscating materials and even arresting people being rude to foreign political figures, as they did in the case of insulting materials directed at such figures as then-Chinese President Li Peng, against the Chilean dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, against Pope Benedict XVI and against visiting American Presidents Ronald Reagen and George W. Bush.

In all of those latter cases the police then had to back off and apologize because one key element required to prosecute such acts – namely, an official complaint coming from the “insulted” party – was not forthcoming. Thus we see that it has really mainly been the Shah who has actively taken advantage of this paragraph 103 during its post-War history. It is also important to note that the harshest punishment that ever resulted was “low-level fines” collected from editors at a Cologne newspaper (after a three-year trial) which published a disrespectful set of cartoons about the Shah in the 1960s.

Now the Turkish government is seeking legal redress as well. (Vice President Numan Kurtulmus has even publicly characterized Böhmermann’s poem as a “crime against humanity.”) That fact has caused many to worry that President Erdoğan, buoyed by how dependent Chancellor Merkel is upon him regarding the refugee situation, is deliberately using these insults directed against him to force her to turn Germany into something it has not been since 1945. Such concerns are misplaced, however, for a Bad and a Good Reason:

  • The Bad Reason: Paragraph 103 has been there as part of German federal law since that law was resurrected in the mid-1950s, so it’s nothing new; and
  • The Good Reason: Over-enthusiastic policing aside (which has always eventually been called back), it seems clear that the modern German legal system does have a good understanding of, and sympathy for, the right of freedom of speech, as we can see from the minor penalties courts have issued even when Paragraph 103 cases have managed to go all the way to trial and judgment.

In other words, while for much of its post-War history German diplomacy has operated within a difficult and awkward framework, so that measures such as Paragraph 103 were useful to have when citizens “misbehaved” vis-à-vis foreign potentates, in the final analysis they have amounted to mere window-dressing. When necessary, “action” can be seen to be taken, whereas no one is seriously punished as a result, and nothing (including the German people’s right to express themselves, in particular) fundamentally changes. OK, Jan Böhmermann may now be under police protection, and he has had to cancel the taping of a number of his shows – but he should enjoy his new status as media martyr, history shows he won’t pay much for it, if anything, and it might even enhance his career.

One might well see a parallel here with the “promises” concerning a resurrection of Turkey’s EU membership bid that are part of the recent agreement concerning the refugees – but that would require a separate post.

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“Now Recep – BeHAVE Yourself!”

Friday, May 23rd, 2014

A heads-up for whoever is going to be in Cologne tomorrow, things could get interesting.

You might recall how we wrote on these pages about a month ago about German President Joachim Gauck’s visit to Turkey a month ago, and the waves he made there. Well, what goes around, comes around: the Turkish Premier Erdogan is due in Cologne on Saturday:

Erdogan_in_DE
“Cologne visit by Turkish PM: Merkel calls for restraint from Erdogan.” Now, this is no sort of state visit, neither Merkel nor Gauck will be anywhere near him, but rather the sort of sojourn Erdogan likes to make from time to time to go shore up his support among the many citizens of Turkish nationality living in Germany.

Unfortunately, the political situation back in the Motherland has been steadily deteriorating, hurried along by the deaths of 301 workers in the recent Soma mine disaster there and the public’s angry reaction to that. In a newspaper interview earlier in the week, Merkel said Erdogan was of course welcome to come give his speech, but “I insist that he does this on Saturday with a sense of responsibility and sensitivity.”

Sensitivity, however, has rarely proven to be PM Erdogan’s strong suit. Indeed, his people seem not to be approaching the event in a very constructive manner:

RP_ErdoganFall
“Turkey fears a trap for Erdogan in Cologne.” But why? Because the German authorities also approved no less than eight counter-demonstrations in the city on the same day. No wonder the Turks are suspicious: they would simply forbid any such counter-demonstrations, and no doubt were ready to do so during President Gauck’s visit there last month – if anyone had actually applied to hold any.

Cologne streets could turn into quite a scrum on Saturday, but the latter Rheinische Post article at least has published the following almost military-looking map to help you make your way. FYI, the stadium-event where Erdogan will actually be speaking is the one the furthest to the right that says Veranstaltung UETD.

Koln
(For those asking, the title to this post was inspired by the Beatles, who even back in the early 1960s could sing remarkably presciently about world affairs.)

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Conduct Unbecoming a Guest

Tuesday, April 29th, 2014

The current sojourn by German President Joachim Gauck in Turkey has turned out to be far from your garden-variety Head-of-State visit (quite apart from the strange paranoia against mobile telephones exhibited by security services there that I tweeted about earlier). These sorts of occasions tend to be scheduled quite far in advance, but in this case you wonder just how far ahead – before the Turkish premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan started to see videos pop up on YouTube implicating him and those around him in corruption, before he started to get all sorts of nasty back-talk on Twitter, for example? Before he went so far as to ban – or to try to ban – both YouTube and Twitter in Turkey, for example?

Yes, before all those developments, you’d have to think. But the show must go on, and Gauck is a trooper for Germany. Let me hasten to add: not THAT kind of trooper for Germany, not at all, really rather a trooper for Truth and Justice. I am serious, he was a civil rights activitist in the former East Germany, which is one of the most unpleasant, pain-inducing job-descriptions you can come up with. But this also means that, although Gauck easily agreed to fulfill his previously-scheduled duty to visit Turkey, he did not intend to shut up about what he found there.

And so we have this:

Gauck in Turkey
“Erdogan rejects Gauck’s criticism.” Mind you, this is while Gauck is still in Turkey.
And the situation is rendered even more awkward by the fact that Prime Minister Erdogan is just one of a pair of Gauck’s official hosts for his visit, the other one of course being Turkish President Abdullah Gül, once almost as politically close to Erdogan as a brother, but now clearly worried about the anti-democratic direction his prime minister is taking the country. (And in addition, completely dismissive of Erdogan’s attempted Twitter-ban – an attitude he communicated via a tweet from his presidential account.) (more…)

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Behind the Taksim Square Protests

Saturday, June 8th, 2013

One surprising thing that you may not know about the recent anti-regime protests that rocked Istanbul and other Turkish cities over the past week (and which show every sign of continuing) is that the premier, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the main target of the demonstrators’ wrath, was not even in the country as they erupted, but rather off on a state-visit tour. But he’s back now, as of Thursday evening.

Erdogan keert strijdbaar terug in roerig Turkijehttp://t.co/vhRT2T1wqJ

@volkskrant

De Volkskrant


Roerig: “In turmoil.” Yep, that’s the scene to which he returned. But he was strijdbaar as he did so, “combative,” boosted in his self-belief by thousands who turned out to the airport to welcome him back. He showed no indication of taking anything other than a hard line on the demonstrations, terming them mere “vandalism.”

It’s all sort of strange when you think about it, all this “vandalism” – isn’t this supposed to be about whether they tear up a park in order to make a shopping mall? In other words, isn’t this at bottom just a municipal Istanbul dispute? Why is the prime minister getting involved?

Writing in the Volkskrant, the linguist and editor-in-chief of the Dutch political magazine De Republikein Rik Smits brings up some other, more significant things you also might not be aware of concerning these Turkish troubles. The title of his piece (quotes in the original): “On Taksim Square a giga-mosque will be erected.”

Taksim Square is of course the ground-zero of the dispute, the location of Gezi Park that is in danger of being razed. The general point here is that it’s not really the supposed new shopping center that is at issue, the authorities have more far-reaching ambitions for that location – ambitions which, by the way, even if the Turkish press were aware of, it would not mention given the notorious heavy hand that the State holds above it.

Smits has not come up with anything particularly new here, it’s just a matter of going back to the historical record – in particular, back to the mid-1990s when Erdogan served as Istanbul’s mayor. Then he also had plans to have a gigantic mosque built on Taksim Square. But Turkey has always had to maintain an uneasy balance between the secular and the religious, and he did not then get his way. Indeed: the military regarded him as rather a bit too religious, and jailed him for six months. But now, of course, he is rather more powerful as Prime Minister (having already taken his revenge on the military – sorry, that’s a blog-post’s worth of material by itself).

There’s even more to it than that, though: Why this spot, why must this particular park die? Is Erdogan perchance the ultimate anti-Green? No, Smits rather shows us how Taksim Square holds a special significance, to those Turkish citizens of a secular persuasion. You have there a big monument from 1928 commemorating Turkish “independence” – in reality, its conversion from the Ottoman Empire, the work of Atatürk. Right next door is the Atatürk Cultural Center. Presumably, according to Smits’ argument, these would have to make way as well for the new mosque – the perfect symbolism of the displacement of the secular by the religious that Erdogan has allegedly been searching for since his mayoral days.

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Deadly Istanbul Bomb Attack Not Necessarily From the PKK

Tuesday, August 5th, 2008

Yes, the Olympics are coming up fast, and they will inevitably dominate what is normally the news-bereft August “cucumber season” – the term for the yearly summer low point in the daily news-beat used particularly in Central Europe, I suppose because August is harvest time there for cucumbers. You can expect this blog in the coming weeks to treat articles about the Beijing Olympics on a regular basis. But realize that my approach is a jaundiced one already and is likely to remain so. Frankly, the original Olympic ideal is dead, crushed between rampant commercialism on the one side and the biological/pharmacological progress that now makes it inevitable for athletes to cheat on the other. That latter aspect we have already had the occasion to address in connection with the Tour de France; as for the former, this excellent piece by Sally Jenkins in today’s Washington Post will set you straight for now, but I do have accumulated in my RSS reader some excellent recent articles about the International Olympic Committee which I hope soon to have time to bring up and discuss on this forum.

For now, though, let’s take up the following interesting article out of the august German weekly Die Zeit: Bomb Attack in Istanbul: BND Chief Doubts Involvement of the PKK. As reported here by CNN, on Sunday, 27 July, there occurred a particularly nasty double-bomb attack in a crowded area of Turkey’s largest city, Istanbul. An initial blast, no more than that of a stun grenade, was designed to draw people’s attention and mass them together, so that a second and much-stronger explosion, ten minutes later, could inflict that many more casualties, which turned out to number seventeen killed and at least 154 injured. (more…)

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