Driven by data; ridden with liberty.
The state-run Bahrain News Agency has announced the King of Bahrain has ratified a new law imposing a prison sentence of up to seven years, and fines of up to $26,500, for anyone who insults the King. The crime of offending “in public the Monarch of the Kingdom of Bahrain, the flag or the national emblem” will incur a minimum penalty of one year’s incarceration and a $2,600 fine.
Lèse-Majesté laws have existed since the Roman Empire, where the state and the Emperor were conflated. Insulting or offending the Emperor was seen as akin to treason. Despite the large disappearances of absolute monarchies, republics may still have similar concepts for their heads of state. It is illegal in Germany, Switzerland, Italy and Poland to publicly insult a foreign head of state. In 2006, a 45-year-old Polish man Hubert Hoffman was “charged for farting loudly in response to his sentiment about the president”. Again in Poland, 28 demonstrators were arrested for insulting Russian President Vladimir Putin. Even other signatories of the European Convention on Human Rights, such as Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and Spain, have lèse-majesté laws. In 2004, Zimbabwean courts gave a two-year suspended sentence to a businessman who ‘denigrated’ President Robert Mugabe by saying the President had “printed useless money”.
Unsurprisingly, Lèse-Majesté laws have been utilised in the arrest of democratic activists, particularly in absolutist monarchies. According to Ammon News, nine Jordanian activists faced major charged “including breaching security and order, Lese-Majeste, slander and defamation, violating public decency, and opposing the existing regime”.
Such laws appear particularly strange and grotesque to a British observer. Britain is a constitutional monarchy, where the Royal family fulfil a ceremonial role. Despite the adulation shown for the Royals at formal state events, such as the wedding of Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge, it is not unusual to hear insults of the Royal family. Former Smiths vocalist Morrissey labelled the Royal family “benefit scroungers”. The late iconoclast Christopher Hitchens called Princes Charles “a slobbering dauphin” and wrote that the Prince of Wales represents “what you get when you found a political system on the family values of Henry VIII”.
Punk rock band Sex Pistols produced a song called God Save the Queen, sharing its name with the British national anthem. The song was understandably controversial, equating the Queen with a “fascist regime”, saying “she ain’t no human being” and ending with the refrain “there’s no future… in England’s dreaming”. However, the song reached 2nd place in the Official UK Singles Chart, and topped the NME Chart. In other countries, the rampant success of an apparently anti-monarchy song might have instituted a constitutional crisis. Instead, the British monarchy seems to be strengthened through this open ridicule.
You are not free unless you are free to insult those in power. This applies to politicians too; whether you believe they are good people constrained by events, or unprincipled, gelatinous, cretinous weasels afflicted with smug faces, an addiction to expenses and the comprehension of dull spoons.