In politics you have to have a thick skin, unless that is, you have a law that criminalises insulting heads of state.
Chancellor Merkel’s decision to allow a German comedian to be prosecuted after Turkey’s president filed a complaint against him is set to test the limits of free speech and satire.
The news has sparked debate over what constitutes satire, but also alerted people to the fact that insulting a head of state is considered a crime in certain countries.
IPI (@globalfreemedia) April 12, 2016
Lèse-majesté from the Latin laesa maiestas or ‘injured majesty’ covers the crime of insulting heads of state.
It was the Romans who first outlawed this behaviour. At first the crime was defined as a violation of fundamental Roman laws. However, when the Roman Empire replaced the republic, the crime evolved into an offence against the emperor himself, although applied more to acts of treason.
But as the cult of personality developed, verbal assaults could also fall foul of the rules. This then passed into Germanic law and feudal law.
In the modern world, most lèse-majesté laws were scrapped along with absolute monarchy.
Governments have long arms
Sticks and stones may break bones, but words can land you in prison and/or with a hefty fine in different countries. Here’s a breakdown of where you have to bite your tongue or face the consequences:
In Poland not only can you be charged for insulting your own leader, but visiting dignitaries are afforded the same protection from slander. In 2005 police arrested 28 protesters demonstrating against the visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin under Article 136 of Polish criminal law.
There was also the case of Robert Frycz, sentenced to 15 months community service in 2012 for insulting the president on his website Antykomor.pl. Frycz insisted his content was satirical, such as Komor Killer, a game which allowed visitors to fire vegetables at a virtual president. President Bronislaw Komorowski attempted to “distance himself from the case:“http://www.thenews.pl/1/9/Artykul/113203,President-against-law-on-insulting-head-of-state and later said: “Personally, I can manage without such legal protection.”
More recently 17-year-old blogger Zabawny Kuc had his computer confiscated after putting a satirical clip on his Facebook. The video showed President Andrzej Duda played in reverse, appearing to take a bouquet of flowers off a memorial in a drunken manner. But the president intervened, tweeting at prosecutors not to take the matter further.
Gość sobie odkręcił filmik, dla jednego śmieszny, dla innego złośliwy ale w sumie bez znaczenia bo “odkręcony”. Prokuratura? Dajcie spokój:/— Andrzej Duda (@AndrzejDuda) January 27, 2016
In the country which holds massive street parties to celebrate the Queen’s birthday, insulting the monarchy can carry a sentence of up to five years and a fine. In 2007 a 47-year-old man was fined €400 for calling the queen a ‘whore’.
Spanish satirical magazine El Jueves was fined after publishing an issue with a caricature of the then Prince of the Asturias and his wife performing a sexual act. The edition was pulled from news stands. The magazine was found guilty in violation of laws 490.3 and 491 of ‘insults to the crown’. Slandering or defaming the crown can carry a penalty of up to two years in prison.
The country known for its neutrality has a very strict code on insulting foreign heads of state. In Article 296 of its penal code concerning ‘Offences Detrimental to Foreign Policy’ it states:
“Any person who publicly insults a foreign state in the person of its head of state, the members of its government, its diplomatic representatives, its official delegates to a diplomatic conference taking place in Switzerland, or one of its official representatives to an international organisation or department thereof based or sitting in Switzerland is liable to a custodial sentence not exceeding three years or to a monetary penalty.”
Thailand’s lèse-majesté laws are some of the strictest in the world. The crime dates back to the 19th century when offending the monarch could lead to beheading or having your hands, feet or ears cut off. The modern concept was enshrined in law in 1908 and updated in 1956 and states: “whoever defames, insults or threatens the king, queen, heir apparent, or regent shall be punished with imprisonment of three to 15 years.” It can cover infractions such as sending critical text messages, or even clicking the ‘Like’ button on Facebook next to an ‘offensive’ post. The law has provoked widespread controversy. Thai fortune teller, Suriyan Sucharitpolwong, who was held under the law, was found dead in his cell in November 2015.
In Saudi Arabia, insulting the king is consider a terrorist offence. Zuheir Kutbi was arrested in 2015 after allegedly insulting the second king of Saudi Arabia, Saud bin Abdel Aziz Al Saud. A counter terrorism law that took effect in 2014 considers all actions that “threaten Saudi Arabia’s unity, disturb public order, or defame the reputation of the state or the king” as terrorism. Amnesty International launched an appeal for his release in January 2016.
In Venezuela it is a crime to offend “in writing, speech or by any other means” the elected or acting president. Guillermo Zuloaga was briefly arrested under this law by Venezuelan military intelligence for a speech that then president Hugo Chavez found ‘offensive’.
This is by far not an exhaustive list, you could also find yourself royally busted for taking a shot at a country’s head of state in Lebanon, Norway, Kuwait, Jordan, Morocco and Malaysia.