Freedom of expression has been a basic right in much of Germany since the spring of 1945, but the controversy over the film “Innocence of Muslims” may end up with that right being curbed once again.
Der Spigel reports that a group called Pro Deutschland is planning to stage a public showing of the anti-Islam film, which has been the focus of huge protests and violent attacks on American and Western diplomatic missions across the Muslim world over the past week. Pro Deutschland, which only numbers a few hundred members, appears to be putting Chancellor Angela Merkel on the spot, having to choose between civil rights and public order.
Merkel was asked at a press conference on Monday what she thought about the plan to show the film publicly, and she answered that a ban could be justified for the sake of public security. “I can imagine that there are good reasons for this,” she said, referring to a proposed ban on the showing, adding that a ban was being considered by her government.
The chancellor, with a long record of promoting freedom of expression and of the press, is in a bind here. Two years ago she praised Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard for his courage in publishing caricatures that caused riots in the Muslim world. Westergaard himself survived an attempt on his life for his cartoon, which showed the Prophet Muhammad with a bomb for a turban.
By law, Merkel cannot ban “Innocence of Muslims” outright. But given the potential violence that could result from showing the work, she may want to prevent it for now.
There is a legal foundation for this kind of censorship in German criminal law, which states that anyone who publicly “insults the content of religious or ideological views in a manner likely to disturb the public order, will be penalized by up to three years’ imprisonment or a fine.”
In 2006, the Lüdinghausen district court in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia gave a one-year suspended sentence to a pensioner who had stamped toilet paper with the phrase “The Koran, the Holy Koran” and sent it to 22 German mosques and Muslim community centers. The court ruled that this action was not protected by freedom of expression because they constituted a disturbance of the public order.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger this week called for a legal analysis of the situation.
Westerwelle told public radio station Deutschlandfunk that, after all, Germany wants to send the signal that “we remain a tolerant country.”
Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that the legality of a showing of the provocative film must be examined “for example from the perspective of the right to assemble if security and order are endangered.”
But the justice minister at the same time doubted that a national ban would work in this case, saying it would have “only a limited effect.”
Head of the Green Party’s parliamentary faction Renate Künast told the ZDF radio station that she, too, objected to a ban. Freedom of expression is a cherished value, she said. “We won’t simply throw that away. Our democracy will hold out even if a few crazy people make difficult videos.”
Künast urged people to legally protest the public showing.
In an interview with Der Spiegel this week, Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich, whose ministry would be the arm of government issuing the ban, said Pro Deutschland was intentionally provoking Islamists. “By doing so, they are recklessly pouring oil on the fire,” he said. “We must use all legally sanctioned courses of action to stop them.”
Aiman Mazyek, head of Germany’s Central Council of Muslims, has called for an outright ban, warning on ARD station that a failure to do so could result in street battles between extremists on both sides of the issue.
Naturally, in such instances, the difference between a warning and a veiled threat are marginal.
But the Liberal Islamic Association (LIB) took a position against a ban. “The more discussion there is about a ban, encouraging a taboo on such content, the greater the damage that is done,” LIB head Lamya Kaddor told the daily Die Tageszeitung. This would only serve to further stoke anti-Islam sentiments that already exist in Germany, Kaddor added.