As we know, the Minister of Justice Vincent Van Quickenborne has undertaken a major reform of our Penal Code. According to the current law, anyone who insults the King risks up to 3 years in prison and a fine. When it comes to insulting other members of the royal family, the prison sentence is 3 months to 2 years. The law aimed at “punishing insults to the King” is old: it dates from April 6, 1847 and was intended to stabilize the country. After all, Belgium was still a fledgling monarchy at the time. And insults or defamatory statements towards the King and his family could threaten the founding foundation on which the country rested.
Freedom of expression
Convictions based on this law are rare in the history of our country, but they are not non-existent. At the end of the 19th century, for example, the socialist leader Edward Anseele was condemned for insulting King Leopold II. In most cases, however, prosecutions have never been brought because the judiciary still takes into account the fundamental right of freedom of expression, enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
As part of the preparation of the bill on the new Penal Code, the Minister of Justice Vincent Van Quickenborne wanted to give “a modern and stricter interpretation to the concept of the crime of lèse-majesté in order to respond to the objections of the Court constitutionality expressed in the judgment of October 28, 2021”. A judgment rendered in response to a case of extradition of a Spanish rapper convicted of the crime of lèse-majesté in Spain.
Different social context
The Constitutional Court ruled that the “law punishing insults to the King” violated the right to freedom of expression. The Court also argued that the king’s reputation is more extensively protected than that of other people and that this does not meet a pressing social need. “The social context is therefore completely different from that of 1847”, comments Vincent Van Quickenborne, Minister of Justice.
The definition of the concept of lèse-majesté is therefore adapted and assimilated to that of defamation of natural persons. This means that the intention to defame the King must be present to constitute a crime. So, in essence, the king enjoys the same protection against defamation as anyone else.
As with defamation or slander, the crime of lèse-majesté will no longer be punishable by a prison sentence under the new penal code: the judge may possibly impose a fine, a probation or a work of general interest. The reputation of the King will therefore no longer be protected any more than that of other citizens.