Ancient lèse majesté laws an anachronism in the cyber era

By MARK PEARSON

Australian writer Harry Nicolaides was about to board the midnight flight from Bangkok to Melbourne on August 31, 2008 for a job interview with a major hotel group.

Officers approached him at passport control and he was then arrested and interrogated.

He recounted in The Monthly what happened next:

“In a dark, damp cell I stripped off my clothes and laid them on the floor, fashioning a bed with my shoes as a pillow. Sleep was impossible: I was thirsty and hungry, confused and alone.

“In the morning I made a short court appearance, before being handcuffed and shuffled onto an overcrowded prison bus bound for the Bangkok Remand Prison.”

Nicolaides was carrying no drugs or firearms and was not laundering money for international crime syndicates. As I wrote in The Australian at the time, his crime was that he had written a just few sentences deemed to be insulting to Thailand’s crown prince in a self-published work of fiction that had sold just a handful of copies.

Those words typed on a computer keyboard earned him a traumatic six month stay in an overcrowded ‘Bangkok Hilton’ as he tried to navigate court appearances and brief lawyers and diplomats trying to negotiate his freedom. He was ultimately released on a royal pardon.

Welcome to the law of lèse majesté – a crime dating back to Ancient Rome punishing a range of behaviours seen as insulting to a sovereign.

Other nations have lèse majesté laws or similar. Journalist Bashar Al-Sayegh spent three days in jail in 2007 just because someone else had posted insulting comments about the emir of Kuwait on his website. And Australian woman Nasrah Al Shamery spent five and a half months in prison in the same country in 2009 because she had allegedly insulted the emir during an argument in an airport terminal.

Brunei, Denmark, Netherlands, Spain and Morocco also have lèse majesté and each has used them to prosecute insults to their royal families in recent years.

Poland, Germany, Switzerland, the Maldives, Egypt, Syria, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Zimbabwe and Greece have crimes related to the denigration of heads of state of foreign countries or their own. They have been used several times this century, as the BBC has reported.

But the country most active in its lèse majesté prosecutions has been Thailand, a nation with an otherwise free and vibrant media.

As many as 100 people a year have been charged with the offence there in recent years, with several unsuspecting foreigners languishing in jail because of their published criticisms of royalty. US-Thai resident Joe Gordon from Colorado was formally charged in August after being detained for 84 days on a charge of translating an unauthorised biography critical of the king.

The prosecutions are so harsh and random that foreign academic experts who have criticized the law have decided not to visit Thailand for fear of arrest over their publications and statements.

US academic David Streckfuss has written a book on the issue and has criticised the political nature of the charge in the modern era, describing it as anachronistic and “a tawdry and naked attempt to use the institution to suppress views”.

He has called for its use only with the king’s consent because it directly contradicts the Thai constitution’s guarantee of free expression.

“Otherwise, the lèse majesté law in Thailand will ever be ready at hand to serve as a weapon in the political arena, always to the detriment of the institution the law intends to protect,” he wrote.

The critics point out that it is not the monarchy itself that pursues the lèse majesté charges, but rather the government of the day via its agencies.

Thailand has a complex political structure, with democracy, the military and royalty all in the mix. Its citizens have such a strong devotion to the royal family that lèse majesté arrests can be used as political devices to win popular support for those pressing the charges.

In an era of globalised products and a certain sameness about many travel experiences we celebrate distinctive cultural differences about countries like Thailand.

But sometimes we must take an international stand against laws that are depriving both the citizens of these countries and visiting foreigners of their liberty because something they have written or said has been targeted for political purposes.

In the meantime, if you are an author, academic, blogger or journalist who has written about lèse majesté – or, worse still, if you have criticised the monarchy in any of these countries – you should review your next travel itinerary carefully. Like Harry Nicolaides, you might not rate your stay at the ‘Bangkok Hilton’ very highly.

© Mark Pearson 2011

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer! My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

1 Comment

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One response to “Ancient lèse majesté laws an anachronism in the cyber era

  1. Janet Brown

    Has there been any case where a writer discussed the law in question in their home country and then were arrested in the Kingdom? Both Nicolaides and Gordon had stayed a length of time in Thailand and were arrested while living there. Gordon, to complicate matters, held dual Thai-US citizenship. It seems as though this peril is a bit exaggerated–unless of course you’re Andrew MacGregor Marshall who would probably be barred from entering Thailand.

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