Turkey Pulse

Erdogan’s wrath against satire expands into Europe

Article Summary
After jailing and suppressing journalists in his country, will Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s onslaught on free speech in Europe backfire?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not known to be humorous or sympathetic toward those who lampoon him. His anger toward the most innocuous of caricatures surfaced shortly after he became prime minister in 2003. In one of his first acts, which set the tone of his relationship with the press, Erdogan took the daily Cumhuriyet to court for depicting him as a cat entangled in yarn in a cartoon.

Erdogan lost that case, but his wrath toward critics in and out of the media never diminished. The Turkish president has opened 2,000 cases against journalists, artists and ordinary citizens he accuses of insulting him or members of his family.

The matter took on a Kafkaesque turn recently when a man in Istanbul accused of severely beating his fiancee defended himself in court by saying he had beaten her because she insulted Erdogan.

Erdogan’s wrath for those satirizing him has reached new heights and gone international. Using an obscure law, Erdogan recently brought charges in Germany against comedian Jan Boehmermann for insulting him in a poem. 

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Boehmermann’s poem, which is rife with references to sodomy and zoophilia, is offensive by any count, and Chancellor Angela Merkel has said so. But because of Erdogan’s poor record on freedom of the press and free speech in Turkey, most Europeans interested in this topic are focused more on Erdogan’s actions than Boehmermann’s words.

International interest in the case also increased after Merkel gave the go-ahead for Boehmermann to be tried under the all but forgotten Article 103 of the German penal code, which proposes prison for anyone who insults a foreign dignitary.

Aware of the uproar she caused in Germany, where she is accused of being Erdogan’s stooge, Merkel has admitted her regret in expressing an opinion on Boehmermann’s poem. She said calling the poem “intentionally offensive” gave the impression that she does not value free speech.

Berlin was already bristling over its ambassador having been called to the Foreign Ministry in Ankara over a video clip satirizing Erdogan as an authoritarian leader with dictatorial tendencies.

Ankara demanded that the video — “Erdowie, Erdowo, Erdogan” — be dropped by the public broadcaster ZDF. Berlin rejected the demarche, saying freedom of expression is guaranteed in Germany. Ankara’s move backfired and prompted Boehmermann to air his offensive poem to anger Erdogan further.

Analysts expect the Boehmermann case will also backfire on Erdogan. That appears to be happening already. In Britain, The Spectator magazine’s John Murray announced "The President Erdogan Offensive Poetry Competition" last week.

He added that a generous reader was offering a 1,000 pound award ($1,460) for the rudest and crudest limerick. Murray submitted his own limerick, which lives up to his bill, and in a subsequent article he said that the magazine had been flooded with entries, expressing surprise at the high number of submissions in Arabic.

Oblivious to the blowback, Ankara is now taking steps that are likely to further aggravate the situation to Erdogan’s disadvantage. For example, a circular by the Turkish Consulate in Rotterdam that calls on Turks to report compatriots who insult Erdogan has caused an uproar in the Netherlands.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte was asked about this development during a press conference with Merkel. "It's not clear what the Turkish government aims to achieve with this action," Rutte said, indicating that the Dutch ambassador in Ankara had been instructed to demand an explanation.

The Netherlands apparently has a “lèse-majesté” law similar to the one in Germany, and it is clear that Erdogan intends to take full advantage of it through the large Turkish community in that country, many of whose members are his supporters and are eligible to vote in Turkish elections.

A spokesman for the Turkish Consulate in Rotterdam tried to downplay the circular, which also caused anger among liberal Turks in the Netherlands. He suggested that a junior-ranking official had used “an unfortunate combination of words” in writing it, and claimed that such circulars are not unusual.

Whoever wrote the circular, it is clear that the announcement could not have been issued without some kind of instruction from Ankara. This suggests that other Turkish consulates also received similar orders, but they are being more discreet about it.

Al-Monitor asked Osman Koruturk, a former Turkish ambassador to Berlin (2000-2003) and member of the main opposition Republican People's Party, whether such a circular was normal. “It is not normal. It is also scandalous. I never heard of or saw such a practice,” an indignant Koruturk said.

“If one of my officers had done this when I was ambassador, I would have requested an inquiry because this amounts to using official instruments in an irregular manner.” Koruturk added, however, with more than a tinge of cynicism in his voice, “The times appear to have changed since I was ambassador.”

Meanwhile, Erdogan is pushing for the Dutch comedian Hans Teeuwen to be tried for insulting him in a comic sketch. This will also anger the Dutch, whose annoyance already increased after Ebru Umar, a Dutch journalist whose mother is Turkish, was arrested in Turkey this week for insulting Erdogan.

Erdogan has in fact created a bandwagon across Europe where people and papers are lining up to insult him in the name of free speech. Following Umar’s arrest, for example, the Dutch daily De Telegraaf depicted him on its front page as an ape trying to crush free speech in Europe.

Koruturk said he could not predict the outcome of the case against Boehmermann, but added that whatever the court decides, the matter will continue to reverberate in Germany and the rest of Europe.

A Western diplomat in Ankara, who wished to remain anonymous due to his sensitive position, agreed. “The matter has been too politicized in Europe for it not to have ramifications,” he told Al-Monitor.

The diplomat also pointed to an “ironic effect” that Erdogan’s legal move will have in Germany and the Netherlands. “Thanks to Erdogan, both countries are now ready to abolish the law he is using to open these cases. This way, he will be contributing to enhancing free speech in Europe while he is trying to curb it in Turkey."

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Found in: turkish foreign relations, turkey eu bid, recep tayyip erdogan, netherlands, germany, freedom of the press in turkey, freedom of expression in turkey, european union

Semih Idiz is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. He is a journalist who has been covering diplomacy and foreign policy issues for major Turkish newspapers for 30 years. His articles have been published in The Financial Times, The Times of London, Mediterranean Quarterly and Foreign Policy magazine.

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