Whenever you’re traveling, avoiding politics is a pretty smart rule of thumb. Especially when you’re visiting countries with less than stellar notions of free speech, it’s a good idea to steer clear of protests, demonstrations, or even heated personal debates about issues. It can get you in trouble with your hosts or with the government of the country.
We all know you can’t go to North Korea and talk politics, but some of the countries where you can be punished or even jailed for criticizing heads of state will truly surprise you. The archaic concept of lèse-majesté (offending majesty) is alive and well all over the world.
Here are 10 countries where you could face serious repercussions for attacking those in power. Loose lips sink ships…
1. Saudi Arabia
If you know anything about the venal and capricious House of Saud, you won’t be surprised that trash-talking them in their own country can land you in a world of hurt.
As part of a new tranche of anti-terrorism laws in 2014, the Saudi government stepped up punishments for anyone daring to speak ill of the King or Crown Prince in public. That offence can net you 5 to 10 years in prison — and Saudi prison is probably not the kind of place you want to spend an extended sabbatical. In some cases, due to the ahem somewhat arbitrary nature of Saudi justice, the sentences can be even more draconian, going as far as public lashing or even the death sentence.
It’s unclear how seriously the government would attempt to enforce this law on foreigners, but they’ve been fairly stringent in applying it to their own people. Back in 2015, a prominent Saudi writer was arrested for insulting a dead former King. Talk about grave consequences.
Thailand has an ‘anything goes’ reputation, one that it’s trying to shed. But as a matter of fact, the country has the strictest lèse-majesté laws in the world. Insulting the King, Queen, regent, or heir to the throne can land you in prison for 3 to 15 years. Per charge.
Worse, the law does not define what constitutes and insult, so that word can be interpreted as broadly as the King pleases. In recent years, enforcement has surpassed the farcical. One man was fined USD $14,000 and spent 86 days in jail for making fun of the King’s dog on Facebook.
In 2014, the Thai government further embarrassed itself by declaring comedian John Oliver a threat to the monarchy. Oliver came to the attention of the governing junta after poking fun at the Crown Prince, who made his poodle Foo-Foo an Air Chief Marshal in the air force.
This one might surprise you a bit, but Spain does indeed still have a King (Felipe VI). Even more surprisingly, it still has lèse-majesté laws on the books, which it has attempted to enforce fairly recently.
The King of Spain is largely a figurehead, much like Queen Elizabeth in the UK. However, the King is still commander-in-chief of the armed forces and the highest representation of the state itself, symbolic of Spain’s sovereignty and dignity. As such, the law forbids anyone from denigrating or damaging the reputation of the King or other members of the royal family. Violation can carry a penalty of up to two years imprisonment.
Catalan separatists and anti-monarchists have been tried and convicted on lèse-majesté rules, and the Spanish government has been cracking down on free speech since 2015.
However, in March of 2018, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that burning images of the King and Queen is free speech, putting the future of Spain’s lèse-majesté regime in doubt.
You may be asking: “Does Switzerland even have a King or Queen?”
Nope. They’re more famous for their direct democracy, yodeling, and passionate neutrality. But they do have pretty damn strict laws protecting foreign heads of state and officials from public rebuke.
According to Article 296 of the Swiss Criminal Code, “Any person who publicly insults a foreign state in the person of its head of state … is liable to a custodial sentence not exceeding three years or to a monetary penalty.”
To be honest, jail in Switzerland is probably preferable to freedom in many other countries.
5. The Netherlands
Come on, Europe! You seem progressive and permissive on so many issues. Why can’t you just leave this monarchy stuff in the past?
The Netherlands retains its (admittedly fairly benevolent) royal family, along with laws dating back to the 19th century which specially prohibit any defamation hurled at the crowned heads of Holland. Slandering a Dutch monarch can technically land you up to 5 years in prison and/or a USD $20,000 fine.
In practice, public distaste for such anti-free speech measures has prevented harsh sentences from being handed down, though 18 individuals were prosecuted under the law between 2000 and 2012.
Granted, some of the things these folks said about the royals were so distasteful and lewd (and totally unsupported by evidence) that I won’t repeat them here. But why should these dudes and dudesses have their own special defamation laws?
The good news is that the left-wing D66 Party has pledged to roll back the Netherlands’ lèse-majesté legislation.
You may be operating under the assumption that all these laws apply only to residents of the countries in question — when they even apply at all. But that isn’t true.
In 2009, an Australian woman found herself in a dispute with Kuwaiti immigration officials in that country over the status of members of her family. She was subsequently investigated for insulting the Emir of Kuwait, and sentenced to two years imprisonment on that charge.
The Australian government refused to intervene, reminding its citizens that they must adhere to foreign laws when they travel. It’s a lesson worth repeating — however absurd those laws may be.
King Mohammed VI of Morocco takes very seriously any utterances which may offend his royal person, and that means the government does as well. However, in 2017, Morocco passed landmark reforms to its speech laws that have at least ended the practice of sending people to prison for saying things that might hurt the King’s feelings.
In 2012, 24-year-old Abdessamad Haydour was sentenced to three years in prison under the old law for criticizing the King in a conversation he didn’t realize was being recorded.
Back in 2008, a court actually handed down the same punishment to a 95-year-old man in a wheelchair for allegedly insulting the King under his breath. The man died 5 months into his sentence.
Well, there you have it. We hope this list helps you stay out of official trouble, wherever you may roam. If nothing else, it should make us appreciative of the country we get to live in, where we are no longer beholden to the whims of half-mad hereditary dictators.