When Law and Literature Collide

Let’s get one thing straight up front – any state that wants to throw someone in jail for criticizing its leader is repressive and not a friend to human rights. If free speech means anything, it means being able to say impolite things about those who wield power over you. Wherever the line is drawn when it comes to such things we should all be able to agree that, say, making fun of the king’s dog shouldn’t be a jailable offense.

Having said that, sometimes regimes that are so intent on maintaining their honor that they’ll lock citizens up for saying mean things about them at least make for interesting entertainment.

Consider the ludicrous prosecution of physician Bilgin Çiftçi in Turkey (via). His supposed crime? He shared a meme that compared president Tayyip Erdogan to Gollum from Lord of the Rings, particularly the Andy Sekris-inhabited version from the movies. Something like this:

o-RECEP-TAYYIP-ERDOGAN-GOLLUM-SMEAGOL-LORD-OF-THE-facebook

Stuck with a horribly oppressive law, Çiftçi is doing the only thing he could in his defense – he’s leaning in:

when he appeared in court, Çiftçi insisted that he hadn’t insulted anyone at all. For all his slimy skin and questionable syntactic habits, many say Gollum is not a villain. He may even be a hero. After all, it was he who freed Middle Earth from the tyranny of the ring by biting it off of Frodo’s finger and (albeit inadvertently) plunging with it into the lava roiling inside Mount Doom.

That might have been good enough – sure, it’s a post hoc justification most likely, but it’s plausible. We’re talking about art here, something open to multiple interpretations none of which are “wrong.” Alas, it wasn’t, leading to the court to summon an expert panel of five people (academics, psychologists, and a TV/movie expert) to weigh in on the merits. No word yet (that I can find) on the verdict.

Let’s hope Çiftçi’s ploy works, as he faces up to four years in prison if it doesn’t.

At least he’s not in Thailand, where the law prohibits anybody criticizing or making fun of the (largely ceremonial) king, even a king that’s been dead since 1605. The “lèse-majesté” even trips up unwary diplomats, such as US ambassador Glyn Davies (who, given his line of work, ought to know better). It even extends to making fun of the king’s dog, for which one unwary Facebook user is facing a potential 37(!) years in prison! He may not have as clever a defense:

‘I never imagined they would use the law for the royal dog,’ Siripaiboon’s lawyer told the Times. ‘It’s nonsense.’

It is nonsense, but not because it’s a law being stretched beyond its reasonable limits. It’s nonsense because such laws shouldn’t exist in the first place. They’re designed to be used unreasonably to stifle legitimate dissent and soothe hurt feelings. Being a president or a king (or even the king’s dogs) requires a little bit thicker skin.

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