Rules around flags in foreign countries: Avoid falling foul of flag laws

If you don't treat national flags with respect, you might find yourself facing public apologies, fines or even jail time. Here's how not to get in a flap over flags.

The appearance of the Aboriginal flag at the Olympics still causes a stir, two decades after Cathy Freeman wrapped herself in one following her 400-metre gold-medal sprint in Sydney.

Recently the Matildas football team were the latest to cause headlines when they took team photos holding the Aboriginal flag before a match at the Tokyo Olympics.

It should remind us that flags are potent symbols of national pride and politics whose misuse can easily get travellers into trouble – or even into jail.

Back at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Dawn Fraser was arrested for stealing (or souveniring) an Olympic flag from outside the imperial palace, though later released without charge.

And in 2016, holidaying Aussies at the Malaysian Grand Prix achieved instant notoriety as the "Budgie Nine" when they stripped down to swimwear emblazoned with Malaysia's flag. They were charged with public indecency and held for three days.

Using the flag on clothing, table linen, cushions and shoes is illegal in many Asian countries. In Thailand, even using the flag's three colours on shoes or thongs can result in a fine, or up to a year's imprisonment.

Thailand has strict rules about messing with the national flag. In 2017 in tourist town Krabi, CCTV footage caught two drunk Italian tourists pulling down five Thai flags from storefronts. The pair were tracked to a nearby guesthouse and arrested.

Both had to apologise profusely, and were lucky to escape jail time. The Thai Flag Act mandates between six months and two years' imprisonment for such offenses.

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The offending tourists claimed flags were of little consequence to Italians, but that's actually untrue. You can be jailed for two years in Italy for destroying a national flag, and even "verbal desecration" can attract a whopping 10,000-euro ($16,000) fine.

Although flag-desecration laws are often associated with repressive regimes keen to suppress protest, you'd best beware no matter where you travel. Disrespecting the flag can have you jailed for a year in Spain, two in Greece and five in Germany, where the law applies to any national flag.

When in 2010 a man was photographed wiping his bottom with a French flag, laws were passed in France imposing 1500-euro ($2400) fines, or 7500-euro ($12,000) fines if your mischief takes place at a public event.

One of the law's first scalps was a man so enraged by poor customer service at a government office that he ripped down the flag and snapped the flagpole in two.

In Montenegro, you can be fined for flying foreign flags without a permit, something to consider before you drape the Aussie flag from your hotel balcony on ANZAC Day, unless you want to stump up 300 euros ($480).

Meanwhile in the Philippines, it's illegal to display the national flag on the front of a building occupied by foreigners, in any "places of vice", or anywhere "where frivolity prevails", such as nightclubs and bars.

In India, cricketer Sachin Tendulkar was reprimanded by the courts in 2007 for insulting national pride by cutting a cake iced with the national flag. He was let off after apologising. More recently, local courts have moved to ban flags on facemasks for fear their disposal may be "improper".

Disrespect can have wide interpretations. In 2019, a French basketball player in the Chinese National Basketball League was fined 10,000 yuan ($2086) for not looking at the flag during the national anthem.

McDonald's, Coca Cola and a German brothel have found themselves in hot water over use of the Saudi Arabian flag. So has FIFA, who wanted to use it on footballs. The Saudi flag incorporates religious text, making its misuse both disrespectful and blasphemous.

Mexicans are fussy about their flag too. In 2008 pop princess Paulina Rubio was fined when fashion photos of her draped only in a Mexican flag appeared in Spanish Cosmopolitan magazine. And in 2014, Miley Cyrus narrowly escaped being detained when one of her dancers butt-slapped her with a Mexican flag while twerking during a concert in Monterrey.

Only a handful of countries have no laws against messing with flags, including the USA, UK, Canada and Denmark – although in Denmark it's illegal to destroy the flag of any other nation, plus those of the EU and UN.

Flag-desecration is allowed in Australia, but this doesn't override other laws. You might be charged with destruction of property or public-safety offences if your actions cause fire danger or "concern, fright, and anger".

No matter where you go, think twice before attacking any nation's symbol of pride. Even if the law allows you to, you might end up facing irate locals, which is nobody's idea of a happy holiday.

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