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Jan Böhmermann

Volume 771: debated on Wednesday 4 May 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have made to the Government of Germany about the case of Jan Böhmermann.

My Lords, the UK Government are aware of the case of Jan Böhmermann; however, we have not made any representations to the Government of Germany. We consider this case to be a matter for the German Government. The UK Government remain committed to encouraging and upholding freedom of speech and media expression around the world.

My Lords, I know the whole House will agree that freedom of speech and the right to poke fun at our political leaders are part of being British. Indeed, freedom of expression is enshrined in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and the court has said that it is,

“one of the essential foundations of a democratic society”.

This man, if I might say so, showed rather poor taste and perhaps he should be prosecuted for obscenity but it appears—my noble friend may contradict me on this—that Chancellor Merkel, under pressure from President Erdogan, has agreed that this prosecution can go forward because she is desperate for Turkish assistance on the migrant issue.

We are told we have great influence in the EU, so could Her Majesty’s Government use that great influence to ensure that this prosecution does not take place? Will they tell Chancellor Merkel and the Germans to resist any pressure, to resist blackmail and to not kow-tow to President Erdogan, whose record on human rights and free speech is, frankly, lamentable?

My Lords, ultimately it is for the Government and people of Germany to set and implement their own laws. The Chancellor has referred the matter, as is proper, to the prosecuting authorities for them to make the decision. Under paragraph 103 of the German Criminal Code, insulting a foreign head of state carries a maximum jail term of three years. It is a matter for the prosecutor now to decide whether a prosecution will go ahead. As for the thought of Chancellor Merkel kow-towing, I have met her—in your dreams.

My Lords, arcane laws do exist, and I understand the Chancellor is committed to removing that law. In fact, there are similar laws in Greece, the Netherlands, Portugal and Romania. Does the Minister agree with me that encouraging all European countries to remain a member of the European Court of Human Rights is a vital prerequisite for democracy in our communities?

My Lords, the noble Lord raises the extremely important point—that there are laws around the world which do inhibit freedom of expression. Yesterday, I made it clear that we want to continue to persuade countries around the world to remove those barriers. Indeed, the Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has made it clear that she wants to remove the very legislation which it appears Jan Böhmermann has now fallen foul of—if that is the decision of the judicial authorities. She said that will happen by 2018, and her coalition partners have agreed with her that this legislation should be removed. That is what we can do around the world: use our influence both as a member of the European Union—which magnifies our voice around the world—and through the United Nations to remove bad law.

My Lords, the President of Turkey is using a crude sledgehammer to crush a comic. In so doing, and in seeking to exert pressure upon Angela Merkel, he is making it clear that he presents himself more as the head of a medieval caliphate than the leader of a modern country that desperately aspires to be a member of the European Union.

My Lords, I did not quite detect a question there, but what I can say is that our Prime Minister, David Cameron, underlined the importance of protecting a free press and human rights to Turkey’s Prime Minister Davutoglu when they met on 7 March, and my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary also set out his concerns when he met his Turkish counterpart on 12 March. That is what we do: persuade others to recognise the importance of freedom of expression.

My Lords, the lesson here is surely that Germany is free to have its own laws, whether we like them or not: it is not constrained by the European Union, just as the UK is not. Does the Minister agree that this episode demonstrates that, despite the scare stories of the Brexiteers, the European Union does not interfere in the domestic rulemaking of its member states?

Will my noble friend confirm that it is not a crime in this country to insult a foreign head of state, as it seems to be in Germany? Will she also restate in the most forthright terms the principle of untrammelled freedom of speech, along the lines usually attributed to Voltaire but actually coined by Beatrice Hall: that we may not like what you say, but we will defend to the death your right to say it?

My noble friend has raised a critical point: that whenever we have freedoms, we also have responsibilities. There is no law to prevent us saying things about foreign heads of state that they may find uncomfortable, but we do have laws to prevent incitement against individuals, groups and religions. That is the right approach.

My Lords, I will take up time myself in order to adjudicate, if we are not careful. I think that the House is calling for the noble Lord, Lord Pearson.

My Lords, does not this shameful story and its related prospect of 85 million Turks being free to enter the whole Schengen area show us yet again that the project of European integration has failed and should be abandoned? As I have asked the noble Baroness and others several times—and never had a satisfactory answer—what is now the point of the European Union?

My Lords, the point of the European Union is to give great strength to democracy, which is what it is doing, on a regional basis. The noble Lord refers to this as a shameful incident; there are many ways of describing it. I just point out, while not interfering with the German process, that when Jan Böhmermann started to read out the poem, he recognised that what would follow would be deliberately offensive and forbidden in Germany. When we do not like the law, let us change the law.