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Things We Cannot Say

This sounds like a belated April Fool's joke, but it's not. In Germany it's apparently a crime to offend a foreign politician.

Germany Investigating Comic Suspected of Offending Turkish President Erdogan

(Wall Street Journal) - German prosecutors have opened an investigation against a television comedian on suspicion of offending Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, escalating a dispute over press freedom that comes as Germany relies increasingly on Turkey to solve Europe's migrant crisis.

The prosecutor's office in the city of Mainz is launching proceedings on suspicion that prominent German comedy host Jan Böhmermann breached a law that prohibits offending foreign heads of state or members of government, senior public prosecutor Andrea Keller said.

Under paragraph 103 of the German criminal code, offending a foreign head of state can be punishable by up to three years in prison.

The legal probe comes two days after German Chancellor Angela Merkel criticized Mr. Böhmermann's satirical poem, which made crude sexual jokes about Mr. Erdogan. It also follows a weekslong spat over German media criticism of Mr. Erdogan and Turkish reaction to it.

Ms. Merkel's spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said the chancellor and Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu agreed in a phone call on Sunday evening that the text of the poem that aired on public broadcaster ZDF last Friday was "deliberately offensive," voicing a rare official media criticism in a country that strongly advocates freedom of the press.

The criticism from Ms. Merkel highlighted the sensitivity of German-Turkish relations at a time when Germany needs Turkey to stop the flow of migration from the Middle East—a position that has drawn fire from critics in Germany who claim Ms. Merkel has as a result turned a blind eye to rights abuses in Turkey.

Mr. Böhmermann's poem was the second media item to cause a stir in recent weeks.

Last month, the Turkish government summoned Germany's ambassador to Ankara after another German comedy show aired a song mocking Mr. Erdogan for, among other things, trying to muzzle journalists. German officials say the government has made clear to the Turkish government the high importance it places in press freedom.

The Mainz prosecutor on Wednesday said the office had received some 20 complaints from "private individuals" about Mr. Böhmermann's poem, automatically triggering the opening of preliminary proceedings.

So Germany is "a country that strongly advocates freedom of the press," but will imprison you for three years if you say mean things about a foreign dictator.

Americans tend to think the 1st Amendment is just the way things work, but that's obviously not the case. In much of Europe people are regularly arrested for, among other things, insulting a religion. For a longer treatment of this subject, see the Legal Project's European Hate Speech Laws.

Some related thoughts:

Chris Rock and John Stewart should be glad they live here, since apparently in most other countries they'd be entertaining their cell-mates in a super-max prison. And let's not even think about the possible fate of Andres Serrano and his "Piss Christ."

The self-confidence of a society can be measured by its tolerance for dissent. Viewed that way, the 1989 US Supreme Court decision defining flag-burning as protected speech was a sign of a culture that's not afraid of a little self-examination. Good for us.

But the battle is ongoing, and lately our cultural self-confidence seems to be going the way of Europe's. See The Atlantic's recent Glaring Evidence That Free Speech Is Threatened on Campus.

Meanwhile here and abroad, restrictions on honestly (if crudely) expressed opinion are boosting support for sharp-tounged politicians like Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage who display a willingness to offend. In the political marketplace, as in any other, unfilled needs are quickly met by creative entrepreneurs. So in the long run, extreme PC may be self defeating.

Why bother with this subject in a finance blog? Because capital markets, more than perhaps any other part of the modern world, depend on confidence. If we're too timid to exchange ideas and opinions, then we're unlikely to be comfortable with long-term investment in factories and growth stocks. So restrictions on speech equal "risk off" in financial markets. All trends these days seem to point towards gold and away from equities and government bonds.

Finally, in honor of what's left of free speech, here are Liam Neeson threatening Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama's press conference with China's premier.

 

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