PEGIDA on trial: the German free-speech scandal no one’s talking about

HL Mencken, the German-American journalist and scholar, once said that sticking up for free speech meant sticking up for ‘scoundrels’. Going on the selective outrage at two recent censorship scandals in Germany, it’s clear we can barely stick up for the scamps.

While Western liberals fumed this week after the German authorities allowed comedian Jan Böhmermann to go on trial for writing a satirical, bestiality-referencing poem about Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, another less-hashtaggable case has entered the German courts unnoticed.

Lutz Bachmann, the founder of German anti-immigration movement PEGIDA, will appear in court today on charges of inciting racial hatred. Bachmann was arrested for calling migrants ‘filth’ and ‘cattle’ on Facebook. And, if convicted, he faces up to five years in jail.

While commentators have been shocked to discover that German law restricts ‘defamation of organs and representatives of foreign states’, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Alongside criminalising Holocaust denial, Germany has some of the most extensive hate-speech laws in Europe – which Bachmann is now on the sharp end of.

The PEGIDA leader’s trial gives the lie to the neat narrative being spun about the Böhmermann case – that Erdogan is twisting German law for his own ends, while Angela Merkel, keen to keep him onside during the refugee crisis, is happy to sell free expression down the river.

The truth is that censorship in Europe today is not the work of easily offended, foreign despots – let alone the odd crazed Islamist gunman. It’s an internal process, stemming from our own illiberal legislation and underpinned by a crisis of faith in our founding, Enlightened values.

Free speech is for all. That means making no moral distinction between censoring someone for repulsively likening refugees to livestock and censoring someone for saying the Turkish president likes to have sex with livestock. But while Böhmermann has become a cause célèbre, Bachmann’s trial has skirted under the radar.

It’s high time we heeded Mencken’s message.

Tom Slater is deputy editor at spiked. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Slater_

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