Joke-telling is not the only ingredient in the comedy cupboard that upsets the powers that be. Historically, exaggerated portraits, as Edward Lucie-Smith writes in issue 197 of Index on Censorship, have long been used to diminish or enhance a public character. The most obvious creators of exaggerated portraits are newspaper cartoonists, who sometimes feel the long arm of the police on their shoulders as a result.
In our exclusive interview with legendary South African cartoonist Zapiro, he talks not only about the power of cartoonists, but the pressure on them not to offend or upset. In an interview with South African journalist Raymond Joseph, Zapiro said: “We provoke thought, even if that thought is pretty outrageous. Others can do it too. We just occupy a space where you can really push the boundaries.” Zapiro faced a six-year court battle with South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma over one of his cartoons. But Zapiro is just as feisty as ever, and reckons he is bolshier than the generations that have come after him.
Cracking down on comedy is just one way to command and control society. This issue’s special report examines others as we study the long shadows Russia’s 1917 revolution cast within and without its national borders.
From the beginning the early Soviets were not particularly fond of disagreement. Shortly after their rise to power, between October 1917 and June 1918, around 470 opposition publications were closed down. Lenin was clear how the nation should work. He believed that journalists, novelists and opinion formers were either with him, or against the state. If they were against the state, they shouldn’t be allowed to write or outline their views. “Down with non-partisan writers,” he argued. This is a view very much in favour with many other rulers today, including Angola’s President José Eduardo dos Santos, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and, recently, US President Donald Trump.
That idea of groupthink, honed by the Soviet Union, satirised by George Orwell, continues to haunt writers in former communist countries today. In Uzbekistan, as Hamid Ismailov outlines, the Soviet Union may have fallen, but the thinking remains the same. Writers with arguments that contradict President Shavkat Mirziyoyev are either neutralised by being employed by the state as advisers and consultants, or leave the country, or fail to be published.
In President Vladimir Putin’s Russia most of the media, apart from a few brave exceptions, fall into line with government positions. For instance, in February this year, according to the Index-led Mapping Media Freedom project, major Russian national television channels abruptly reduced the number of times they mentioned the US president. This followed a Kremlin order to cut back on “fawning coverage” of Trump.
In all the recent furore over “fake news”, prompted by almost incessant use of the term by Trump to undermine any reporting he didn’t like, it’s worth pointing out that tricks to get the public to believe something that is not true have been used throughout history. In fact, as Jemimah Steinfeld investigates (page 114), the Roman emperor Augustus was a master of manipulation well before PR handbooks were written.
And open the pages of a treasured book in our office and you’ll see an early version of photoshopping at work. Photographs featured in The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin’s Russia, show how people were “disappeared” from official Soviet portraits in the 1930s as they fell out of favour. Belarusians have been experiencing government attempts to get them to believe false stories for decades. In his report on page 52, Andrei Aliaksandrau unpicks the tricks used over the years and holds them up to the light.
And there’s some excellent thoughtful pieces in our fiction section too, with two new short stories written for this publication: one by Turkish writer Kaya Genç, and the other by British writer Jonathan Tel. The final slice is a new English translation of a much older story, by Russia’s “Comrade Count” Alexei Tolstoy.
To finish, a sad note. Our regular, and fantastic, Brazil correspondent Claire Rigby has died suddenly. Claire did amazing reporting for us, and we will miss her.