Germany’s record on free speech leaves a lot to be desired. Vacillating from one extreme to another, from simulcasting Nazi propaganda to criminalizing Holocaust-denial, it has long struggled to protect the civil liberty of free speech while quelling the tides of authoritarianism. In an attempt to control the recent uptick in xenophobia and racism, largely exacerbated by sudden demographic shifts linked to Berlin’s refugee-intake program, German authorities are now prosecuting arbitrarily-defined “hate speech,” otherwise known as free speech, with what appears to be de facto blasphemy laws.
On Wednesday, Chancellor Angela Merkel backed a federal program to monitor and police internet activity on popular social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.
The Orwellian program is being led by the Federal Ministry of Justice and Consumer Protection, or BMJV and the Interior Ministry, implicating several branches of government in the campaign to suppress free speech online.
Vowing to exploit nearly every shred of power at his disposal, Justice Minister and SPD (social-democratic party) member Heiko Maas has vowed to weaponize legislation to purge “hate” from online space in Germany if social media companies fail to effectively restrict the conduct of their users towards this end.
“Under a program that runs until March, German authorities are monitoring how many racist posts reported by users of social media sites are deleted within 24 hours,” reports Reuters. After March, Berlin will reassess the political climate online determine whether or not to implement stricter and more punitive measures to restrict speech.
“I support efforts by Justice Minister Heiko Maas and Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere to address hate speech, hate commentaries, devastating things that are incompatible with human dignity, and to do everything to prohibit it because it contradicts our values,” stated Merkel in a self-righteous speech delivered to the Bundestag lower house of parliament.
This comes as Germany intensifies its efforts to curtail artistic freedoms.
In May, German prosecutors went full 1984, prohibiting a poet from publicly reciting a poem that mocks Turkish autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
A court in Hamburg “ruled that only six lines of the 24-line poem by German comedian Jan Boehmermann could be recited, offering the Turkish leader a partial legal victory,” according to AFP. “The poem accused Erdogan of bestiality and paedophilia and has caused a storm in Germany over freedom of speech.”
In the court’s own words, “Erdogan does not have to put up with the expression of certain passages in view of their outrageous content attacking (his) honour.”
— Michael C Moynihan (@mcmoynihan) May 18, 2016
Spitting in the face of Western democracy, Merkel personally authorized the Orwellian trial. Merkel’s ruling Christian Democrat party even assumed the responsibility of highlighting particular sections of the poem that ostensibly undermined the “honor” of Erdogan. Who knew the Federal Republic of Germany, a country located in post-War Western Europe, was this obsessed with Arab honor culture?
Merkel felt compelled to respond to Erdogan’s hurt feelings after Boehmermann recited his “Defamatory Poem” on national television last month. According to Human Rights Watch, (HRW), “Merkel referred the case to prosecutors under article 103 of Germany’s criminal code, which makes it illegal to insult foreign heads of state, with a penalty of up to five years in prison.” While the Chancellor previously stated that article 103 was “dispensable,” her government has been dragging its feet, vowing to draft a proposal in hopes of eventually taking it out of the criminal code by 2018.
The court’s May injunction was challenged in early November by the poet’s lawyers who argued that the state is setting a destructive precedent by censoring artistic expression.
But Germany’s conception of free speech is far from the impregnable ideal we champion in the United States.
“Freedom of speech in Germany is more restricted than in the U.S. Public displays of Nazi and Communist symbols are banned and Holocaust denial is punishable by up to five years in prison,” reports The Wall Street Journal. “Inciting hatred or violence against anyone for their ethnic or religious identity is also a crime.”
Germany’s censorship-lust has become so extreme that in July government officials directed the police to carry-out a nationwide crackdown on allegedly racist or xenophobic posting on social media sites.
“In raids coordinated by the federal criminal police agency BKA, police across 14 states raided the homes of 60 people suspected of being behind the postings, which are illegal under German law,” explains The Journal. “No arrests were made, the agency said.”
Issuing an almost comically Orwellian threat, German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière told reporters at the time that “Violence, including verbal violence, must be confronted with rigorous limits.” To be clear, words, formed by air vibrations uttered by an individual, is not tantamount to violence. By definition, violence is physical; the term “verbal violence” is a perversely paradoxical portmanteau, an illiberal contrivance that mocks language itself in a despotic ploy to justify the unjustifiable, the use of state-sanctioned physical force to muzzle noises human beings make with their mouths.