‘Insult law’ commonplace in many countries

South African Communist Party (SACP) general secretary Blade Nzimande has called for a law protecting President Jacob Zuma against insults, the Star reported on Thursday.

Nzimande was backing a call made by the SACP in KwaZulu-Natal on Monday, for a law protecting the presidency from attacks that were "unfair, and lacking in fact and truth".

"People can differ with me and you can insult me as you like, but disrespect, that is not acceptable," the higher education and training minister was quoted as saying.

The SACP's comments were made after critics of upgrades at Zuma's rural homestead in Nkandla were labelled racists.

In May this year, the ANC and supporters labelled Brett Murray's the Spear artwork, depicting Zuma with his genitals exposed, as degrading and racist towards the president.

These suggestions immediately drew the ire of legal experts and opposition parties, who claimed any such law would violate the Constitution.

"No such law would have any prospect of success," Dene Smuts, Democratic Alliance spokesperson for justice said.

Violation of the Constitution
"Free speech is, among many other things, instrumental in ensuring democracy by allowing exposure and discussion of the views and conduct of political leaders."

This was echoed by constitutional law expert Pierre de Vos, who said the touted law would not work, as it would be in conflict with the constitutional principle that no one is above the law or more equal than others.

But a quick look at various laws around the globe illustrate that even countries regarded to have relatively strong media freedom and acts underpinning freedom of speech have statutes outlawing the insult of elected officials.

For instance, France's 1881 law on the freedom of the press prescribes punishments for insult to the president, public officials and foreign dignitaries. Punishment used to include prison terms but reforms of the law in 2000 have seen it limited to fines. However, an insult to the president of France could see you smacked with a €45 000 fine.

In Spain the calumny laws prohibit the defamation of public officials or the Spanish royal family and their descendants through insults but can only be enacted if the said insult is proved to be untrue. Punishments for breaking calumny statutes are also limited to a fine ranging from six to 24 months wages.

However, Turkey comes out tops in terms of punishment in Europe for insulting their president. As per article 299 of the Turkish penal code, a person defaming the president shall be imprisoned for a term of one to four years. If the insult in question is made public, the resulting sentence will be increased by one sixth.

Harsh penalties
Moving to Latin America, countries seen to be developing strong media freedoms still carry harsh penalties for those insulting heads of state of elected officials.

Brazil, in spite of intense reforms of press law enacted in 2009, still carries the prospect of a six-month jail sentence or a hefty fine on its statutes if an individual is found guilty of defaming the president or government members.

Stranger still are defamation laws in Colombia, where hundreds of reporters are part of a protection programme to shield them from threats of armed groups unhappy with their reportage on the drug trade in that country.

In spite of their protection of journalists, anyone proved to have insulted an elected government official will be punished by imprisonment of one to four years and a fine ranging from 10 to 1 000 times the minimum wage in that country.

In Asia, laws prohibiting perceived derogatory statements against government officials or royalty are even broader and more stringent.

Thailand's 2007 Constitution, for example, states the king is in a position of "revered worship" and shall not be violated under any circumstances. Those found guilty of doing so can expect a 15-year jail sentence.

In China, government defamation laws are wide, with anyone found guilty of instigating the subversion of the political power of the state being slapped with a five year prison term.

Flogged for insults
In the Middle East, penalties become even more archaic.

In Iran, anyone convicted of insulting any government leaders will be sentenced for up to 24 months or can opt for a flogging of 74 lashes and a fine.

Closer to home, many sub-Saharan countries carry Acts prohibiting the insult or criticism of government officials.

In Zimbabwe, article 33 of criminal law states that anyone found guilty of undermining the authority of or insulting the president will face a fine and/or one year in prison. 

Rwanda's 2009 media law also outlaws any contempt of the head of state and hands down three month jail terms and/or a fine to anyone found guilty. The same goes for Zambia, where defaming the head of state is a criminal offence that carries a jail sentence of up to three years.

Five years of imprisonment and a US$4 000 fine also awaits any individual in Cameroon that is found guilty of insulting the president or the vice-president.

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Nickolaus Bauer
Nickolaus Bauer is the Mail & Guardian's jack of all trades news reporter that chases down stories ranging from politics and sports to big business and social justice. Armed with an iPad, SLR camera, camcorder and dictaphone, he aims to fight ignorance and pessimism through written words, photographs and videos. He believes South Africa could be the greatest country in the world if only her citizens would give her a chance to flourish instead of dwell on the negativity. When he's not begging his sub-editors for an extra twenty minutes after deadline, he's also known to dabble in the occasional poignant column that will leave you mulling around in the depths of your psyche. The quintessential workaholic, you can also catch him doing sports on the weekday breakfast show on SAfm and presenting the SAfm Sports Special over the weekend.

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