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German Comedian's Crude Poem About Turkish President Sparks Controversy


Another international controversy is building between Germany and Turkey over, of all things, a poem. Last month on German TV, the comedian Jan Boehmermann performed a crude poem mocking Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.


JAN BOEHMERMANN: (Foreign language spoken).

SIEGEL: Among other things, the poem said Erdogan kicks Kurds, smacks Christians, all while watching child pornography. That's one of the few lines we can repeat on NPR. It also imagines the Turkish president committing acts of bestiality. Well, now Turkey's president has asked Germany to prosecute Boehmermann for allegedly violating German laws regulating speech. To talk about this, I'm joined by Anton Troianovski, Berlin correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. Welcome again.

ANTON TROIANOVSKI: Good to be here.

SIEGEL: And tell us what led Jan Boehmermann to read - I assume write and read - this poem on German television?

TROIANOVSKI: Well, the back story here is there was a different German comedy show that aired its own clip poking fun at Erdogan for trying to muzzle free speech in his own country. That led to Turkey calling in the German ambassador and registering grave concerns. The German government did not apologize, did not take that clip off the Internet.

But it did cause an uproar here in Germany as well, and it prompted this comedian that we're talking about today, Jan Boehmermann, to go on his show and read out a poem that he said would be illegal in Germany. So the idea was to show that even in Germany there are limits on free speech and satire.

SIEGEL: And what law apart from laws of good taste did this poem violate?

TROIANOVSKI: Well, there are obviously several laws in Germany regulating speech including libel and defamation. But Germany also has a law that specifically prohibits insults of foreign heads of state and makes that punishable with up to three years in prison. This is a very rarely used law, but that's now the law that's come up in this situation.

SIEGEL: Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel, is dealing with this controversy at the same time as she negotiates with Turkey over refugee issues. What has she said about Boehmermann and his poem and the Turkish president?

TROIANOVSKI: Her spokesman went out last Monday and announced that Merkel viewed the Boehmermann poem as deliberately offensive, obviously, a very rare statement to have the chancellor of Germany commenting on a late-night comedy show. After that, President Erdogan and the Turkish government officially demanded that Germany open an investigation into Boehmermann under that statute that prohibits insults of foreign heads of state.

SIEGEL: What's your sense of how the German public views Jan Boehmermann in all this? Is he seen as a hero of free speech or a troublemaker who crossed the line?

TROIANOVSKI: Well, certainly, there are many here in Germany who would say that his poem was, in fact, very tasteless. At the same time, what really ticks many Germans off is this sense that Turkey and a foreign leader, who many here view as an authoritarian, is interfering in Germany's own regulation of its own freedom of the press. That's what's come to the floor the most here, the way in which the refugee crisis and Angela Merkel's dependence on Turkey to stop the flow of refugees into Europe is making her, in many ways, beholden to this very difficult leader to work with.

SIEGEL: That's Anton Troianovski of The Wall Street Journal in Berlin. Thanks for talking with us.

TROIANOVSKI: Sure thing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.