- By Joshua Keating
Joshua Keating is associate editor at Foreign Policy and the editor of the Passport blog. He has worked as a researcher, editorial assistant, and deputy Web editor since joining the FP staff in 2007. In addition to being featured in Foreign Policy, his writing has been published by the Washington Post, Newsweek International, Radio Prague, the Center for Defense Information, and Romania's Adevarul newspaper. He has appeared as a commentator on CNN International, C-Span, ABC News, Al Jazeera, NPR, BBC radio, and others. A native of Brooklyn, New York, he studied comparative politics at Oberlin College.
Just in case you’ve been wasting your morning reading about actual important things, journalist Mark Halperin has been indefinitely suspended from his gig as a commentator on MSNBC for referring to President Barack Obama as a "dick" on television this morning. (To be fair, he actually only called him "kind of a dick.")
People can disagree about whether the network’s punishment was too harsh — I would imagine it’s something of a badge of shame at MSNBC to not have been suspended at this point — but as he kicks back this 4th of July weekend, Halperin should be thankful he doesn’t live in one of the many nations where much milder insults can land you in prison.
In Thailand, a country with some of the world’s harshest lesè majesté laws, insulting the monarchy can bring a sentence of three to 15 years in prison, and the scope of the law is pretty wide: A U.S. citizen living in Thailand was arrested last month for posting a link critical of the king on his blog. It’s safe to assume there will be consequences for the new WikiLeaks cables describing some fairly depraved behavior from Thailand’s rowdy royals.
In Turkey, where it’s illegal not just to criticize the government but "Turkishness" in general, a British artist was fined for placing Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s head on a dog’s body in a series of collages.
In Iran, a prominent journalist was recently sentenced to 16 months in prison for calling President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a megalomaniac. In pre-revolutionary Egypt, you could go to jail for four years for insulting Hosni Mubarak. It was even a jailable offence to insult foreign heads of state, as the late author Idris Ali learned when he wrote a novel critical of Muammar al-Qaddafi. In Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, you can be arrested just for sending an email with pictures of the president’s mansion. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has also used laws against insulting the president to silence his critics in the media.
It’s not just high-profile journalists who find themselves falling afoul of these laws. A South African miner living in Zambia was arrested in 2007 for cracking jokes about the country’s president with his buddies at work. In comparatively liberal Lebanon, a man was arrested last year for calling President Michel Sleiman a "hypocrite" and "the worst kind of failure" on Facebook.
But it’s not just autocracies or developing countries where people have watch what they say about the head of state. In France, the crime of insulting the president can carry a fine of up to 45,000 euros. A 21 year-old man was arrested for an unspecified insult against President Nicolas Sarkozy during a visit to a rough Paris suburb last year.
In the Netherlands, there were two seperate arrests in 2007 of citizens calling Queen Beatrix a whore. And, in 2006, Poland launched a national manhunt for a man who farted loudly in response to a request from police to show more respect for then President Lech Kaczynski.
So while calling the president a dick on cable television is, perhaps, not the most eloquent or constructive form of political criticism, it’s good to know that you can’t go to jail for it.