Living in Britain all my life has made me acutely aware of the continued existence of royalty. I am in a minority when it comes to be critical of the monarchy of the Royal Family or the actual concept of venerating vacuous rich people based on the vagina through which they entered the world. However in many countries the sentence you just read would have gotten me into trouble with the police due to the existence of laws that prohibit criticism of the state or a royal leader. These crimes, known as lèse-majesté, should be seen as hangovers from previous centuries and should be abolished in the name of free speech, especially as the following article, if read aloud in public, could have the person fined or put in prison in at least ten countries.
Europe is seen around the world as the centre of liberal freedoms and democracy however there are many countries where it remains illegal to criticise certain inbred aristocrats. In Denmark the monarch is protected by the same libel paragraph in the Danish penal code but Article 115 allows for the sentence of a person, which can be up to four months, to be doubled if the target of the libel is a royal. Similarly in the free speech-loving Netherlands a person can be given a maximum sentence of a fine and five years in prison for insulting the king, the heiress apparent, and/or their relatives.
In Spain in 2007 the satirical magazine El Jueves was fined because it published an issue with a caricature of the Prince of Asturias and his wife having sex on the cover. As well as Spain, Article 101 of the Norwegian penal code also states that if found guilty of defamation against the king the punishment can be a fine or up to five years in prison; article 103 states that the king needs to accept or command a prosecution, but having free speech curtailed on the whim of someone who is apparently inherently better than other Norwegians because his ancestor was the ‘chosen one’ (of Napoleon).
Although not technically lèse-majesté, in Germany, Italy, Poland and Switzerland it is illegal to insult foreign heads of state publicly; in 2005 Poland twice charged people for such crimes with Marxist publisher Jerzy Urban handed a fine of $6,200 for insulting Pope John Paul II, and 28 human rights activists were detained for insulting Vladimir Putin one of whom was officially charged. These seem even more stupid as if you’re a royalist you wouldn’t want your monarchy derided, even if they have no right to be spared of ridicule, but banning criticism of foreign heads of state is just odd.
Given the number of repressive regimes in the Middle East is was not surprising to discover that such laws existed however lèse-majesté laws actually only exist in two countries that are often held up as more democratic. The constitutional monarch’s of Kuwait and Jordan are shielded from criticism from such laws yet not in Saudi Arabia which is ruled by an absolute monarchy, but it’s worth pointing out that they do kill people for apostasy and witchcraft so it’s not exactly utopia either. In 2009 an Australian women was detained because she insulted the Emir of Kuwait during a fracas with immigration authorities which actually caused a diplomatic incident. In Jordan protesters calling for political reform were violently ‘put down’ by authorities after they chanted slogans against the Jordanian regime as well as insulting the Royal Court and King Abdullah II. Two years later in 2014 Mohammad Saeed Baker, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s internal policy making body, was sentenced to six months in prison for lèse-majesté and was released in February 2015.
Morocco’s King Mohammed VI is also shielded from criticism Moroccans often prosecuted for statements regarded as offensive to the king. If such a statement is made privately the minimum penalty is one year in prison, but if the statement is publicly that minimum is raised to three years; in both cases the maximum penalty is five years in prison. In 2008 an 18-year-old student was charged with “breach due to the respect of the king” because he wrote ‘God, Country, Barça’ on a blackboard which was a variant of Morocco’s national motto ‘God, Country, King’ in reference to his favourite football club. On a personal note I would question the order of the student’s phrase because as an atheist internationalist I would put the football team I support first on the list. In 2012 another 18-year-old was convicted under the same law for posting two cartoons of the king on Facebook; he was officially prosecuted for “touching the sacralities”, which sounds decidedly ‘Game of Thrones’.
Malaysia also has de facto lèse-majesté laws as sedition laws are used to charge people for allegedly insulting royal institutions. In 2013 five people were detained for this reason and in 2014 student activist Ali Abd Jalil was arrested and served 22 days in prison for insulting the Sultan of Selangor and the royal family of Johor. As well as these many countries, North Korea has also reportedly executed people on charges of lèse-majesté for insulting the Kim dynasty, however this is hard to verify due to the communicative isolation of the country.
However the most infamous example of lèse-majesté is found in Thailand which in each of the seventeen constitutions since 1932, when the Thai monarchy ceased to be absolute, has been the words “The King shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated. No person shall expose the King to any sort of accusation or action.” Furthermore the Thai criminal code expands on the implementation of this part of the constitution: “Whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years.” Because of the 2006 military coup and the declining health of the king the Thai criminal justice system has become incredibly sensitive about criticism aimed at the monarchy, but this restriction on free speech became more Draconian in 2013 when the Thai Supreme Court ruled that the part of the criminal code quoted above also protects members of the royal family that have died; this has its own problems as scholars have questioned how far back in history this law can apply as the current monarchy is around 200 years old whereas previous monarchies that ruled Siam go back around 700 years.
Interestingly in 2005 King Bhumibol Adulyadej actually encouraged people to criticize him: “I am not afraid if the criticism concerns what I do wrong, because then I know…the King can do wrong”, however this seems to be ignored because criticism against the king is not only punished but it only needs to be deemed as existing rather than actually proving the person’s guilt. In addition to ignoring what the king specifically the NCPO junta that overthrew the democratic government in 2014 has radically increased the number of lèse-majesté charges including against the parents of the former princess Srirasmi Suwadee who in 2015 were sentenced to two and half years in prison. Unfortunately until this junta is itself overthrown the restriction of civil liberties will continue unabated and criticism of the monarchy will remain illegal, even if pointing out that a monarchy dripping in gold in a country where 7.3 million people are living in poverty is morally reprehensible.
Lèse-majesté is a strange and morbid concept that criminalises free speech that the governing class of countries around the world find uncomfortable. The people who stand up against this archaic principle in the face of criminal prosecution deserve the respect of all of us. It’s all well and good me sitting in my living room mocking the pseudo-transvestism of the King of Thailand but being put into prison for deriding his dress sense is ludicrous. Even in socially progressive Europe do such moronic laws remain, which is thoroughly depressing for all of us Europeans who lecture other countries for having repressive laws.