Satire Causes Diplomatic Tensions: Chancellor Merkel Caught in a Dilemma

Germany, 16 Mar - 12 Apr 2016
Satire can do anything, doesn’t it? Humourist sparks debate about press freedom and puts Merkel in a squeeze ++ Germany mourns death of former foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher – What will remain from “Genscherism”? ++ Panama Papers: dubious deals of a parallel world. by Lisa Heinemann
Satire can do anything, doesn’t it? Humourist sparks debate about press freedom and puts Merkel in a squeeze

Jan Böhmermann, one of Germany’s most popular and appreciated satirists, is facing a very unfunny situation: he published a defamatory poem on his TV late night show about Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, underlining several times that the content would be considered as “Schmähkritik” (abusive criticism) and would actually be forbidden. The juridical term refers to statements which solely aim to despise and degrade a person. This is a criminal act under German law because it goes beyond mere satire. Critics of Böhmermann’s poem also highlight the use of general prejudice and insults that are frequently used against Turks in Germany.

President Erdogan filed a demand for prosecution against Böhmermann. Such motions have to be approved by the federal government. Chancellor Merkel called the poem “deliberately hurting” (as that is what satire basically does) and approved Erdogan’s request. She stated that it’s up to the judiciary to decide if Böhmermann went too far. If the court finds the satirist guilty the maximum penalty is five years in prison. However, if convicted, he will probably get away with a fine.

Most media outlets as well as the overwhelming majority of comedians and humourists criticize Merkel's approval. They see this as a concession to Erdogan and claim that the Chancellor "sacrificed" Böhmermann instead of defending the freedom of speech. Just a year ago, after the terrorist attacks on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, the whole western world agreed about the inviolability of the freedom of speech with the statement “Je suis Charlie”. What is the difference in this situation then? Some media claim that it reveals the ambiguity of Angela Merkel’s behavior. To find a way out of the refugee crisis, where she always set solidarity at first place, she signalized Erdogan not to look to carefully when it comes to constitutional violations in Turkey. The current Turkish government tramples down the freedom of speech and has a history of human rights violations. Turkey is considered a key player in solving the refugee question, but doubts remain of how far admissions should go.

The German satirist Kurt Tucholsky said in 1919 that satire can do anything, but in this light another of his quotes seems to be more applicable “A country is not only what it does, but what it tolerates”. Satire will always offend some and please others. Jan Böhmermann wanted to show that, apparently, in Germany satire can no longer do anything, it depends on the people involved and the the political circumstances. What is most interesting about the whole story is that by her reaction, Angela Merkel made it a big issue and put herself in a squeeze. Many public actors say that for her the situation is the most reluctant.

Germany mourns death of former foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher – What will remain from “Genscherism”?

Again, Germany is in deep mourning of the loss of one of its most important politicians of the past century. After Richard von Weizsäcker, Egon Bahr and Helmut Schmidt who all passed away over the past year, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, liberal politician and former minister of foreign affairs, died on 31 March aged 89. These elder statesmen belonged to a generation of politicians confronted with a deeply divided Europe by the Cold War. Their big challenge was to maintain peace in a world full of conflicts. Despite all difficulties, Genscher stuck to the idea of a transnational democracy with a stable economic and social union. He was minister of the interior from 1969 to 1974 and minister of foreign affairs from 1974 to 1992.

Genscher was a strong advocate of negotiated settlements to international problems. As a popular story on Genscher’s preferred method of shuttle diplomacy has it, "two jets crossed over the Atlantic, and Genscher was on both." He knew that Germany’s neighbor states were concerned about the country becoming an economic and political powerhouse again and it was up to him as foreign minister to soothe them, explain government’s actions and intentions no matter how short time was. German boastfulness was in any way a no-go. Genscher stood for a policy of compromise between East and West, and developed strategies for an active policy of détente and a dialogue with the USSR. Genscher’s penchant to seek the middle ground – often criticised as a naïve quasi-neutralism by Germany’s Western allies – was dubbed Genscherism by the New York Times.

In September 1989, thousands of East German citizens sought refuge in the West German embassy in Prague. They were trying to travel to West Germany, but were being denied permission to travel by the Communist Czechoslovak government at the request of East Germany. Genscher held discussions on the refugee crisis with Czechoslovakia, East Germany and the Soviet Union and finally reached an agreement. From the balcony of the embassy, he announced that the refugees could leave: "We have come to you to tell you that today, your departure ...". After the keyword “departure”, the speech was drowned in cheers – an emotional and significant event in German history.

Genscher is most respected for his efforts that helped spell the end of the Cold War, when Communist eastern European governments toppled. Further, he is credited with securing Germany's subsequent peaceful reunification. Born in the East German city of Halle (Saale), Genscher argued that the West should seek cooperation with Communist governments rather than treat them as implacably hostile; this policy was embraced by other Europeans.

Genscher’s proposals frequently set the direction of foreign affairs among Western Europe's democracies. He was an active participant in the further development of the EU and advocated further integration and deepening of relations in the EU towards a more federal Europe. He later was among those who pushed hard for monetary union.

In 1992, Genscher retired due to health issues. At the time, he was the world’s longest-serving foreign minister and Germany’s most popular politician. His achievement had earned him great reputation across party lines. Hans-Dietrich Genscher will always remain one of the decisive figures in overcoming the division of Europe and Germany as well as the Cold War due to is high diplomatic skills and persistence. What could we learn from his approach in international affairs? Communication is the heart of cooperation and taking over the other’s positions helps you to recognize own failures. Even if Genscherism did not make it to a state theory of its own, it provides thought-provoking impulses to tackle current challenges in view of a crumbling European façade and not to lose sight of the overall aim – a unified Europe.

Panama Papers: Dubious deals of a parallel world

It’s a long list: from criminals to sport stars to business men to politicians and wealthy citizens – they all possess offshore accounts or companies in so called tax havens or, in other words, countries with lax tax laws. Among them are big names like Russian President Vladimir Putin and also around 1,000 Germans. Owning an offshore account per se is not against the law, but experience of the past has shown that those who make a big effort to hide their money may also want to hide where it comes from. In most cases, offshore accounts lead to a confusing network of criminal activities involving human, drug and arms traffic, tax evasion and so on. Cash flows have been traced back to financing the war in Syria and evading taxes in Uganda in the amount of annual governmental expenditures for the health system.

The publication of these data will raise many questions and will put many people into difficulties to explain. What is sure is that Panama highly depends on foreign investment and until now no one wants to take over responsibility for what happened, neither the Panamanian government nor Mossack Fonseca, the law firm that sold all these accounts without questioning. It is only one firm of many that was now uncovered, but there are probably more to come.

The affair distinguished itself by the overwhelming work that was done jointly by a network of around 400 international journalists at 107 media organisations in 76 countries, led by German daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, and published at the same time in several countries. The problem is an international one, thus also the journalistic task and together investigative journalists can uncover more complex cases.

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