Thursday, 16 July 2015

Lèse-majesté laws: Shield of Solemnity or Sword of Silence?

The term lèse-majesté implies injury or harm to the majesty of eminent persons, most often used to describe insults to monarchs and visiting heads of State and Government in many countries of the world. In some countries, it may also be treated as treason.


Since the decline of absolute monarchy in all but a handful of nations, there aren’t any strict laws against lèse-majesté but laws preventing the populace from speaking against democratic governments have instead sprung up, which basically amounts to the same thing.

Image Courtesy: genius.com

Recent incidents of people being charged with lèse-majesté in Europe show that it isn’t taken very seriously and may be categorized with similar laws like defamation or libel. Over years, these laws have been watered down by the rise of democracy and the lack of power wielded by the monarch. A Polish man was fined US $ 6,200 in 2005 for insulting Pope John Paul II, a visiting head of state. In 2007, a man was jailed for a week in the Netherlands for insulting Queen Beatrix. A magazine in Spain was fined for portraying the then Prince of Asturias and his wife engaged in sexual intercourse in 2007.

However, in nations like Thailand, where the monarchy is looked upon in reverence and is almost deified, lèse-majesté laws are brutal and have a maximum of 15 years imprisonment for trying to besmirch the image of the ruler, the head, the face and the symbol of unity of the nation. Also, lèse-majesté doesn’t need to be proved in Thailand, it need only be deemed to exist. The government has taken an increasingly hard line against those who criticize the monarchy, even though the king himself asked the public to do so because even he was prone to making mistakes. From 1990-2006, the country saw approximately 75 cases while it saw over 400 from 2006-2011.

The arguments for lèse-majesté laws can be made on both sides. On one side, they protect the sovereign, who may be the symbolic or actual personification of a nation, from being treated like a common person. On the other hand, it withholds from the public the fundamental right of the freedom of expression. Now that the world is over the whole idea of the ‘divine right’ to rule’, should the monarch still be kept protected or should the people get the right to express discontent and criticize those in power?

How do then governments strike the right balance between preserving the dignity of monarchy and preserve the right to expression? The answer is not  simple one but one perhaps that can be answered by ruling families themselves who can be open to civilized and constructive criticism, and learn to take sarcasm in the right spirit. Looking inward to introspect and improve relations with those devoid of “blue blood” may perhaps yield better results than laws dealing with lèse-majesté.


Whether you are a reader from a monarchical nation or not, I’d like to know your thoughts on the matter.