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At lunch the other day I glanced at the “Trending” section, on page 8 of the April 25 issue of Time magazine. (The first issue – from 1923 – is at right.) As noted in an earlier post, I get the magazines hand–me–down.
The middle item was about German authorities being pressured to prosecute a comedian, under a law that “forbids insults to foreign leaders.” For reasons noted below, that piqued my interest.
It seems there’s a comedian in Germany – a “satirist and television presenter” – named Jan Böhmermann. He’s the host of a popular German TV show, Neo Magazin Royale. Last March he aired a poem, Schmähkritik. (Which translates, “abusive criticism.”) The poem – “full of profanity and criticism” – was about Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
After the fact, the comedian himself admitted that his attempt at humor was “unfunny, beyond crude and hardly worthy of the name.” Among other things, the poem called Erdogan “the man who beats girls,” and also loves to “suppress minorities, kick Kurds, hit Christians, and watch child pornography.” (Other “accusations” are not fit for mixed company…)
Then – it can be safely said – came the firestorm. (As in “a firestorm of controversy.”)
The law at issue – which first appeared in the “Prussian legal code of 1794” – was designed to keep German citizens from insulting foreign leaders. Somewhat ironically:
The United States tried to make a complaint against a shop owner in the city of Marburg in 2003. The shop owner called then-President George W. Bush, a “state terrorist.” But the German government decided this did not go against the law.
What piqued my interest was the contrast between the German law and Exodus 22:28. That Bible passage says – in the English Standard Version – “You shall not revile God, nor curse a ruler of your people.” However, it doesn’t say anything about “bad-mouthing the ruler of another country.”
Apparently, under the law of the Bible you could insult “foreign leaders” all you wanted.
That seems to be par for the course in other countries around the world. You can insult foreign leaders all you want, but don’t dare “curse the rule of your people.” See This is how these 12 countries will punish you for insulting their heads of state. That site noted:
It may be par for the course in the United States, but in dozens of nations around the world, badmouthing your commander-in-chief will earn you fines, imprisonment or even a flogging.
One of those countries is Cameroon. (And that’s where the top image came from.) That country is one of several in Africa which “have laws against ‘sedition’ (read: saying stuff your ruler doesn’t like) left over from times colonial, and continue to make enthusiastic use of them.”
But don’t think I’m picking on Cameroon. Lots of countries have penalties just as bad, if not worse. But the notes on that country featured the interesting image at the top of the page.
And don’t think that Germany is alone in having laws – at least laws on the books – that punish citizens for insulting the leader of another country. See No Insulting Foreign Leaders In Iceland, Either:
Iceland has enforced this article in the past. On both occasions, it was to prosecute Icelanders who mocked the Third Reich in some capacity. In 1934, Þórbergur Þórðarson was charged under the law for an article he wrote about Germany at the time, wherein he called Adolf Hitler “the sadist in the German chancellor’s seat.” Further, Icelandic poet Steinn Steinarr was charged under the same law, when he and a group of others who torn down a Nazi flag flown by the German consulate in Siglufjörður.
So why – you might ask – would one country prosecute its citizens for insulting the leader of a foreign country? The answer? International relations.
As noted in The Guardian [on] Böhmermann, the only way to “make sense of this prosecution is to set it in the context that the law’s 19th-century drafters probably envisaged:
In the specific case of Germany’s section 103, about slighting foreign states, the government must expressly approve the prosecution, presumably because the whole original purpose was to deploy the criminal law as an instrument of foreign policy.
And incidentally, this business of punishing your own citizens for insulting a foreign leader is nothing new. One notable example from history is Sir Walter Raleigh.
“Sir Walter” was a court favorite of Queen Elizabeth I. (She knighted him in 1585.) But then came a change of regime, in the form of Elizabeth’s successor, King James I. (The guy who created the King James Version of the Bible, but was “not favourably disposed” toward Raleigh.) And Raleigh pushed his luck too far.
Between bouts in prison, Raleigh was famous for establishing colonies in the New World and “also well known for popularising tobacco in England.” But in doing all that he made the Spanish king very angry. (Mainly because he stole lots of gold from Spanish ships.)
Things went well as long as his forays produced some income. But finally, his luck – and King James’ patience – ran out. In 1618, “to appease the Spanish,” he was arrested and executed.
The good news from all this is that Jan Böhmermann won’t be hung or beheaded. (Like Raleigh, above left.) In fact, the “archaic law” now seems so ridiculous – “in the light of day” – that it’s on the path to extinction. See Germany to Scrap Law [against] Insulting Foreign Leaders.
But the point I’m trying to make – in case it’s too subtle – is the marked contrast between those laws that punish citizens for insulting foreign leaders, and Exodus 22:28. Whatever else you can say about the 12 countries [that] punish you for insulting their heads of state, they’re at least “following the Bible.” I noted another marked contrast – between that Biblical commandment as practiced and as preached” – in On dissin’ the Prez. (In my other blog.)
Another aside: The Apostle Paul was reminded of Exodus 22:28 in Acts 23. He was on trial – for “preaching” – before the Sanhedrin. (The “Hebrew Supreme Court.”) High priest Ananais told a guard to “strike him on the mouth,” and Paul responded as shown in the image below:
Those standing nearby said, ‘Do you dare to insult God’s high priest?’ And Paul said, ‘I did not realize, brothers, that he was high priest; for it is written, “You shall not speak evil of a leader of your people.”’
(Which brought up Conservative Christians who say the Bible must be interpreted literally.)
But getting back to the subject at hand: In Turkey, over “1,800 people – including schoolchildren – have been prosecuted for comments posted on social media that insult Erdogan:”
In Istanbul, opinions are divided on the move against the comedian… “The president [Erdogan] has his own rights,” said one man. “When someone insults the German president they put him into the prison, also the American president. (E.A.)
Oh really? Apparently that guy hasn’t watched Fox News or listened to American talk radio…
“God will strike you, you whitewashed wall!”
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The upper image is courtesy of not bite your tongue about some world leaders – GlobalPost. (Cited in the text as “This is how these 12 countries will punish you for insulting their heads of state.”)
Sources used in writing this blog-post include: Turkish President Wants German Satirist Jailed, German Comedian May Face Prison, CORRECTION BACKGROUND German law: When does insulting a foreign leader become a crime, Calls grow to scrap law on insulting foreign leaders [Germany], Germany to Scrap Law that Prohibits Insulting Foreign Leaders, Jan Böhmermann – Wikipedia, and The Guardian view on the Jan Böhmermann affair.