(The National Post, 30 April 2016)
President Recep Erdogan of Turkey is regarded as stern, proud and despotic, but lately we have learned that he's also extremely sensitive. Negative remarks wound him seriously. He's almost always in a state of high dudgeon. Since becoming president he's sued at least 1,845 individuals for libel. He recently warned reporters at a press conference that he'll sue more of them if they keep insulting him.
After 11 years as prime minister, Erdogan promoted himself to president in 2014. In earlier days he was considered a reformer planning to modernize the economy and the laws of Turkey. He even favoured making peace with Turkey's Kurdish minority. But in his new role he's changed his mind. He's lost interest in European Union-suggested reforms and he's clearly no friend of the Kurds. Instead, his main interest seems to be his reputation.
Libel is no trivial matter for a president in Turkey. Aside from financial penalties, insulting the president carries a maximum of four years in prison. Erdogan's desire to punish his critics, or at least elicit apologies from them, has turned into a free-speech issue in several European countries.
A poem ignited the controversy.
It was written, and read on TV and radio, by Jan Boehmermann, a German satirist of modest reputation. Der Spiegel claims this five-minute item has unsettled all Germany, which (Der Spiegel notes) "normally doesn't spend much time thinking about satire and art and the freedoms associated with them."
The poem says Erdogan is "dumb as a post, cowardly and uptight," not to mention "lice-ridden."
Then it gets vicious. Erdogan, affronted, diplomatically reminded Berlin of an archaic section of the German Criminal Code that makes it illegal to insult representatives of foreign nations. The German government must approve a prosecution.
The controversy blossomed when Chancellor Angela Merkel decided (over the objections of her foreign minister and justice minister) that Boehmermann could be prosecuted.
This decision aroused suspicion when journalists and politicians recalled that Merkel had announced her intention to eliminate that clause. Apparently she was trying to appease Erdogan so that Turkey would go ahead with its plan to help the EU with the migration crisis.
The German police, perhaps anxious to get a role in this drama, arrested a musician named Bruno Kramm, the founder of Generation Goth and a member of the Pirate Party. His crime was to quote a line from the poem at a rally in support of Boehmermann.
Erdogan's anger spread farther. Ebru Umar, a Dutch-Turkish columnist for Metro newspaper in the Netherlands, was arrested by Turkish police for offensive tweeting. While on holiday in Turkey, she was awakened from her bed by police, interrogated, kept overnight and forbidden to leave the country until two of her tweets could be fully investigated and the authorities could decide whether or not to charge her with insulting Erdogan. Among other things, Umar criticized Turkey's consulate in Rotterdam for asking Turks in the Netherlands to report anyone insulting Turkey or Erdogan.
Turkish consulates elsewhere stand on guard for Erdogan's dignity. The consulate in Geneva recently asked the city to intervene in a photography exhibit. One picture showed Berkin Elvan, a 15-year-old Istanbul boy who was out to buy his family's bread when he wandered into an anti-government protest and was killed by a tear-gas canister fired by police.
He died in 2014, inspiring demonstrations in foreign as well as Turkish cities. The caption on the picture reads: "My name is Berkin Elvan. The police killed me on the orders of the Turkish prime minister." The Geneva city council let it stay in place, arguing that the Swiss still believe in free speech.
Erdogan's now-famous lack of tolerance for criticism has turned into a ready-made joke and a freepress issue for comedians and journalists. If Erdogan has registered his name on Google Alerts, as we can be certain he has, he knows by now that various publication have called him "The Thinnest-Skinned President in the World" and "The World's Most Insulted President."
A Dutch newspaper published a cartoon in which Erdogan appears as an ape crushing free speech. Britain's Spectator magazine challenged its readers with an Insult Erdogan Poetry Contest and received a satisfyingly large pile of entries. In Germany, Mathias Doepfner, who runs Springer Verlag, publisher of the big tabloid Bild, wrote that he supports everything in the Boehmermann poem. German culture pages praised it as the only real satire anybody can produce these days.
Donald Tusk, the president of the EU Council, has implied that Erdogan's extreme sensitivity is a threat to free speech. Tusk said that when he was prime minister of Poland he had grown a thick skin: "The line between criticism, insult and defamation is very thin. The moment politicians decide which is which can mean the end of freedom of expression." Erdogan has many skills but it seems unlikely that thickening his skin is one of them.