Is it ok to insult the king? Dutch MPs debate law change

Dutch MPs were on February 8, 2018 to debate scrapping 19th century laws making it a criminal offence to insult the king, with backers of a draft bill saying they no longer fit a "modern monarchy". Photo: Koen van Weel / ANP / AFP

THE HAGUE – Dutch MPs on Thursday debated scrapping 19th-century laws making it a criminal offence to insult the king, with backers of a draft bill saying they no longer fit a "modern monarchy".

But the issue is a hot-button topic in the Netherlands where the royal family is much loved, and the down-to-earth King Willem-Alexander has proved as popular as his mother, former queen Beatrix, since he succeeded to the throne in 2013.

The lowlands nation of 17 million people remains one of the few countries to still maintain "lese majeste" laws, under which it is a criminal offence to insult or defame the monarch.

But the draft bill put forward by the progressive D66 party, a member of the ruling coalition, is causing fissures in the fragile four-party ruling alliance.

First deemed a crime in 1830, the law banning defamation of the head of the royal household has been on the Dutch statute books since 1886.

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But today it "implies restricting freedom of speech," argued D66 MP Kees Verhoeven in his draft bill, first put forward in early 2016.

"Since 1830, 185 years have gone by. That's a good reason to update changes to the legislation," he said.

"Time has run out for this law," Socialist deputy Ronald van Raak argued in the chamber.

"Legislation should make no distinction between insulting the king and insulting your neighbour," he added, insisted that freedom of speech "must trump the king's sensibilities".

The law is seldom invoked however, and carries a maximum of five years in jail or a penalty of nearly 20,000 euros ($24,500).

Last used in July 2016, a man was jailed for 30 days for insulting Willem-Alexander on Facebook, calling him a "murderer, thief and rapist".

- Freedom of speech -

The issue also flared in November 2014 when an activist shouted "Fuck the King, Fuck the Queen and Fuck the Royal House" during a protest.

 

Although prosecutors initially filed a suit against the man, the decision was reversed after an outcry condemning what was seen as an assault on freedom of speech. 

Verhoeven argues that the defamation laws arose out of "social and political struggles" in Dutch society in the 19th century.

In one case in February 1887 on the eve of the birthday of then king William III, riots erupted and two bookshops were smashed up by furious monarchists after a socialist publisher printed a brochure titled "The Life and Times of King Gorilla".

"It is a very old piece of legislation, and doesn't fit with a modern monarchy," Verhoeven said, quoted by the daily Volkskrant.

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He is proposing dropping the lese majeste clauses from wider-ranging laws on crimes against the royalty.

And he insists the king will still have the right, like all Dutch citizens, to lodge a complaint against someone for defamation.

However conservative Christian CDA party member Chris van Dam said it was "inconceivable that the king would cycle over to the police station to lodge a complaint."

The largest coalition party, Prime Minister Mark Rutte's liberal VVD, appears to be cautious over the proposed law change.

But despite such misgivings, a majority appeared to be forming in the parliament Thursday for the monarch to be liable to receive the same kind of insults the ordinary Dutch people must endure.

AFP

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