“Insult laws”, which make “insulting” the honour or dignity of public officials a criminal offense, continue to be implemented in many countries in the world, despite their denunciation by various global representatives of press freedom, including the United Nations. In many cases the repercussions are a lot more severe than an attempt to stop the publication of or remove the offending material.
A few years ago, a Russian online magazine editor poked fun at Vladimir Putin’s announcement of plans to increase Russia’s declining birth rate in a satire he posted, titled “Putin as Russia’s phallic symbol”. The government charged him with criminal insult and he was tried, convicted and fined more than $500. His apartment, as well as the magazine’s offices, were raided, its computers seized and its website blocked.
Closer to home, Zimbabwean carpenter Richmore Mashinga Jazi was arrested and charged for allegedly undermining the authority of President Robert Mugabe earlier this year, after making a joke that the Zanu-PF leader must have had help blowing up his birthday balloons.
Poking fun at Mugabe’s age is a no-no, as Jazi’s compatriot, Gift Mafuka, discovered two years ago when he was sentenced to one year in jail with hard labour after he asked two young boys why they were wearing T-shirts with the image of an old person with wrinkles on his face.
In Thailand, 62-year-old Ampon Tangnoppaku died of liver cancer in jail earlier this month, after receiving a 20-year prison sentence for allegedly sending SMSes to a government official that were deemed to be insulting to the queen – a charge he denied. His death sparked protests demanding the reform of Thailand’s lese-majesty (“injured majesty”) law, under which 397 cases were submitted to the criminal court between 2006 and 2009.
The arrest of an Egyptian human rights activist in Saudi Arabia also led to days of protests outside the country’s embassy in Egypt, eventually culminating in its closure in April. Although the Saudi government alleged that Ahmed Al-Gizawy was arrested for smuggling prescription drugs into the country, Egyptian human rights organisations claimed he had been sentenced to a year in prison and a public flogging on charges of insulting the Saudi king. There is no legal protection of freedom of speech in Saudi Arabia and Saudis are also banned from publicly criticising the royal family.
Globally, it is generally journalists who continue to be the most affected by these laws. In a World Press Freedom Committee study of insult laws in more than 90 countries and territories, Professor Ruth Walden wrote that journalists in more than 100 of the world’s states – the democracies and regimes among them – could be imprisoned for “insulting” government officials and institutions.
“Regardless of what the laws are called or how they are worded, the result is the same: they are used to stifle and punish political discussion and dissent, editorial comment and criticism, satire and even news that the government would rather hide from the public,” said Walden.
So where can a budding South African artist wanting to depict a statesman in the nude travel to? Canadian artist Maggie Sutherland recently painted a naked prime minister Stephen Harper, leaning back on a chaise longue chair – surrounded by his employees – about to sip a coffee with a terrier at his feet.
“We’re not impressed. Everyone knows the PM [prime minister] is a cat person,” said Harper’s director of communications, Andrew MacDougall, on Twitter.