Lèse-majesté in Jordan: Authoritarian hangover or the glue of The Kingdom?
Joe Ward discusses the laws regarding the Jordanian Monarchy’s protection from criticism. What is the real-world impact of these laws and what do other countries do?
Sentenced for criticising the King. Sounds like a headline from the days of medieval monarchies, but these headlines remain commonplace in Jordan. In April 2021, Athar al-Dabbas, a Jordanian in her thirties, was sentenced to one year in prison for asserting that her father was “better than the King” in an argument over car parking. She was subsequently convicted under Article 195 of the Penal Code – the lèse-majesté law.
This type of law – a French term meaning ‘to do wrong to majesty’ – has existed in most countries as long as absolute monarchies have, punishing those who insult the monarch and their dignity. As the power of monarchs decreased, so did the enforcement of these laws, and in modern Britain freedom of speech reigns over the monarchy. Short of committing libel, slander or treason, members of the public can say what they like about the Royal Family, illustrated by the perpetual scandals and controversies about royals in the media.
In guidance before leaving to study in Jordan, we were told to avoid conversations about the royal family, even amongst our class of Exeter students
However, the case of Ms. Al-Dabbas does not surprise me considering my first term of study abroad in Jordan. In guidance before leaving to study in Jordan, we were told to avoid conversations about the royal family, even amongst our class of Exeter students. If the subject did come up in conversation, it was usually met with nervous looks or immediate praise of the King, Abdullah II, by Jordanians. The extent of the lèse-majesté law was clear to me when the leaking of the Pandora Papers (leaked documents of offshore accounts including those of King Abdullah II of Jordan) was better covered on my BBC News app than by any local media – the only outlet to cover it was AmmanNet although this was duly censored by domestic intelligence. Reactions by the majority of those I spoke to repeated the official government narrative of a ‘campaign against Jordan’ and praised the King’s duty to his country.
In November 2021, the King announced the pardons for 155 people convicted under the lèse-majesté law
Anger at the al-Dabbas case, notably expressed against the Government rather than the King, led to a dramatic change of policy. In November 2021, the King announced pardons for 155 people convicted under the lèse-majesté laws. This is a significant move away from authoritarianism for a regime hit by an attempted coup in April 2021, when former Crown Prince Hamzah was arrested for conspiracy to overthrow the Monarch. However, it must be noted that the law has not been rescinded.
This begs the question: are lèse-majesté laws an important part of the structure of the constitutional monarchy, or are they merely a flimsy shield, made necessary out of fear? The legitimacy of Jordan’s king comes from several sources: firstly, his ancestry back to the Prophet Muhammad; secondly, his custody of the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem; and thirdly, his wide-ranging powers over the appointment and direction of the government. It is this last pillar which lèse-majesté laws are there to maintain.
The image of the King as an infallible saviour is able to be maintained because any public dissatisfaction is directed towards the government. The King is able to dismiss governments to appease the public, and thus remain above politics whilst still having significant influence. As he has the sole power to change the government, he is always the champion of the people. This is best illustrated by the Arab Spring, when the King appointed 4 new governments in 2 years in response to protests, thus managing to keep the situation relatively under control and remain above the criticism of these governments. It is this image of the King, as above the criticism levelled at politicians, that must therefore be protected and -in theory- the lèse-majesté laws maintain his superiority within public thought.
Currently, it seems unlikely that removing this law will dramatically increase demonstrations and dissent. Jordan already has a significant protest culture, shown by the weekly protests in the area around the Prime Minister’s Residence. These protests often criticise the Government and their actions, such as a large protest in late November over the Government’s water-energy deal with Israel. Thus, the possibility of a deluge of anti-Abdullah protests and dissent against the monarchy seems unlikely in Jordan, as criticisms would still be levelled at the Government, who make the day-to-day decisions of running the country. The King would also still be able to quell them with governmental change.
A possible option is to relax the laws rather than remove them, as is the case in many European countries
A possible option is to relax the laws rather than remove them, as is the case in many European countries; such laws let pass day-to-day criticism of monarchs but prosecute obscene defamation of them. For example, in 2007, Spain fined a satirical magazine that published a cartoon of then Crown Prince Felipe (now King) and his wife having sexual intercourse. This style of lèse-majesté law protects the dignity of the Royal family but doesn’t stifle open debate about them.
Whether the King of Jordan and his government decide to alter these laws or not remains to be seen. However, for the time being, they seem to be erring on the side of freedom of speech, having pardoned those convicted under the lèse-majesté law. These steps can only be a good thing for the transparency and accountability of the Jordanian democracy as a whole.