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Lèse Majesté: When it’s Illegal to Insult the President

On December 15, 2015, English-speaking guests in Bangkok’s hotels were met with a strange sight.

That morning’s copy of the International New York Times had a vast blank space on its front page, a sea of white in which swam only the words: 

“The article in this space was removed by our printer in Thailand.”

Little could the assorted guests have known it as they picked over their complementary breakfasts, but that blank space had once held a report on a Thai criminal so dangerous, just printing an article about him could get you arrested.

Thanakorn Siripaiboon, beside the police.

That criminal was Thanakorn Siripaiboon, a 27-year old factory worker at that moment sat in a military jail.

And his crime had been making a Facebook post. Not one glorifying terrorism, or inciting violence.

But a post insulting the king’s beloved pet dog, Tongdaeng.

For his crime, Thanakorn Siripaiboon was now facing 37 years in prison.

Welcome to the weird world of Lèse Majesté laws: where it’s illegal to insult your nation’s leader.

Coming from Latin via French, Lèse Majesté literally means “injured majesty”. 

Historically, such laws were used in states with absolute monarchs. In the Middle Ages and early-modern period most of Europe had them, including England, where Henry VIII passed a darkly ironic law mandating execution for anyone who called him a tyrant.

Mostly, these laws died out along with the idea of God-kings, giving way to fancy-pants stuff like “democracy” and “equal rights”.

But not in Thailand. 

The current Thai Lèse Majesté law was passed in 1956, replacing a slew of old punishments that ran all the way from being forced to cut grass, to having your head cut clean off.

Known as Section 112, it was rarely used before 2014, although there were some earlier examples of its absurdity.

In 2007, a politician was jailed for two years for saying the 19th Century Thai king Mongkut had allowed slavery.

This was actually true. But the court still ruled it an insult, issuing the chilling verdict:

“Truth is no defence in Thai defamation cases.”

But it was only in the wake of the 2014 coup – as the military junta sought to shore up support – that the era of Lèse Majesté really began.

Like poor Thanakorn Siripaiboon, others were soon arrested for things like wearing black on the king’s birthday, or liking a Facebook post.

Between 2014 and 2018, it was estimated that Thai courts saw hundreds of Lèse Majesté cases.

The craziest part? 

Thailand isn’t an aberration. Other countries have their own insane Lèse Majesté laws.

The same year as the Thai coup, Saudi Arabia passed its counterterrorism bill. 

One of the acts defined as terrorism was insulting the king. Since then, ordinary people have been fined, jailed, or publicly whipped for “insults” like advocating a constitutional monarchy.

For most of us, these laws probably seem like crazy throwbacks.

The USA has never had Lèse Majesté laws, and England gave up enforcing them by the reign of George III.

But this is far from normal among OECD democracies. 

In much of Europe, Lèse Majesté is alive and well.

Today, Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, Poland, and Italy still have punishments for insulting heads of state, while France only scrapped its law in the last decade.

While most of those countries either rarely or never prosecute anyone, there are some EU nations that still love themselves a bit of Lèse Majesté.

In 2016, the Netherlands jailed a man for 30 days after he called Willem-Alexander “a murderer, rapist, and a thief”.

But even this has nothing on the fate that befell Spanish rapper Valtonyc.

In 2018, the native Mallorcan released Tuerka Rap, in which he accused the Spanish monarchy of corrupt dealings with Saudi Arabia and declared “we want death for these pigs”.

He was convicted of defaming the crown and glorifying terrorism, and sentenced to three and a half years in prison.

The biggest irony? Just two years later, King Juan Carlos I fled Spain after a court accused him – you guessed it! – of corrupt dealings with Saudi Arabia.

At time of recording, Spain is still seeking to extradite Valtonyc from Belgium, despite Tuerka Rap now appearing more like fact than defamation.

In Spain as in Thailand, the truth is no defense against a charge of Lèse Majesté.

Still, even Valtonyc’s absurd sentence is comparatively small potatoes. There’s one part-European nation that’s embracing Lèse Majesté with all the clingy-ness of a bad prom date. 

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to literally talk Turkey.

Under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkish Lèse Majesté convictions have soared.

Well, Lèse Majesté-like convictions, at any rate. If you want to get technical, Lèse Majesté laws only apply to monarchs, not presidents like Erdoğan. But the result is exactly the same.

By 2019, the U.S. Department of State Overseas Security Advisory Council was reporting that more than 5,000 people had been convicted of insulting the Turkish president, with another 17,000 charged.

recep tayyip erdogan
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.By Mikhail
Palinchak, is licensed under CC-BY

The “insults” have ranged from shouting slogans, to sending tweets. Occasionally, the police have even investigated people for insulting Erdoğan before he became president.

Some of these cases go beyond parody.

In March, 2020, an opposition lawmaker from the CHP party criticized Erdoğan using the exact same words Erdoğan had used to describe the CHP leader.

The lawmaker was subsequently prosecuted for insulting the president.

But what happens when Lèse Majesté reaches beyond a nation’s borders?

In 2016, German comic Jan Boehmermann became the center of a political firestorm when he read a poem on his show, insinuating Erdoğan was super into all kinds of kinky sex. 

Turkey complained, and Germany investigated Boehmermann under its own Lèse Majesté laws.

Naturally, the investigation outraged free speech campaigners. Here was a German citizen, in Germany, legally forbidden from joking about a guy living some 2,000 km away.

But then, Erdoğan isn’t the only European autocrat who can’t take a joke.

When Vladimir Putin came to power in 1999, one of his first acts was to take the television station NTV into state ownership because it had broadcast a puppet show portraying him as an “evil gnome”.

More recently, Moscow passed a law making it illegal to “disrespect” the Russian President.

Still, there are signs that – for most of the world – Lèse Majesté’s time is ending.

Following the Jan Boehmermann incident, Germany scrapped its law in 2017. 

A year later, the Netherlands abolished separate laws for insulting the monarchy, instead folding them into existing laws against insulting police officers and paramedics.

Even Thailand suspended Lèse Majesté in summer, 2020. Before that, there hadn’t been a conviction for two years.

But just because Lèse Majesté laws themselves are vanishing, it doesn’t mean their effect has faded.

Instead, thin-skinned leaders are finding new, creative ways to silence critics.

In Bangkok, the end of Lèse Majesté coincided with a dramatic rise in convictions under the Computer Crime Act.

In practice, these people had committed the same “crimes” that Thanakorn Siripaiboon had: insulting the royal family.

But because the phrase “Computer Crime” is so deathly boring, news outlets that gleefully reported on Thailand’s abuse of Lèse Majesté didn’t cover these new arrests at all.

With a simple linguistic trick, the dictatorship killed journalistic interest in its suppression of free speech.

Yet, even this sly move might not be the worst thing happening right now.

Let’s end this video by talking about a brand new phenomenon: undeclared Lèse Majesté.

Thanks to the social media explosion, it’s becoming ever-easier for politicians to silence their critics without resulting to the law.

Typically, this takes the form of troll armies that will harass anyone who tweets offensive remarks, creating such a big power imbalance that ordinary citizens are afraid to speak out.

In Latin America, for example, the troll army of one small nation’s president doxxed an 18-year old boy for a critical tweet.

In another country, a man who posted an anti-government meme to Facebook was sent creepy photos of his children as a warning not to try it again.

Since the reach of these government trolls is global, even YouTubers living thousands of kilometers away can be intimidated into not naming and shaming the presidents using them.

But regardless of who is behind these armies, the result is the same.

In the olden days, Lèse Majesté laws existed to create a chilling climate, to scare citizens into keeping their doubts to themselves.

But when you can create that climate without resorting to the courts – when ordinary people are afraid to voice their opinions – then you’re living in a society which no longer needs Lèse Majesté. 

A society in which free speech against a president or king is already unthinkable.

Lèse Majesté laws themselves may be dying out. But so long as we have insecure leaders – and so long as those insecure leaders have the means to make you think twice before insulting them – then the spirit of Lèse Majesté will always be with us.

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