Contents – Having the last laugh: The comedians who won’t be silenced


The Winter 2023 issue of Index looks at how comedians are being targeted by oppressive regimes around the world in order to crack down on dissent. In this issue, we attempt to uncover the extent of the threat to comedy worldwide, highlighting examples of comedians being harassed, threatened or silenced by those wishing to censor them.

The writers in this issue report on example of comedians being targeted all over the globe, from Russia to Uganda to Brazil. Laughter is often the best medicine in dark times, making comedy a vital tool of dissent. When the state places restrictions on what people can joke about and suppresses those who breach their strict rules, it's no laughing matter.

Up Front

Still laughing, just, by Jemimah Steinfeld: When free speech becomes a laughing matter.

The Index, by Mark Frary: The latest in the world of free expression, from Russian elections to a memorable gardener


Silent Palestinians, by Samir El-Youssef: Voices of reason are being stamped out.

Soundtrack for a siege, by JP O'Malley: Bosnia’s story of underground music, resistance and Bono.

Libraries turned into Arsenals, by Sasha Dovzhyk: Once silent spaces in Ukraine are pivotal in times of war.

Shot by both sides, by Martin Bright: The Russian writers being cancelled.

A sinister news cycle, by Winthrop Rodgers: A journalist speaks out from behind bars in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Smoke, fire and a media storm, by John Lewinski: Can respect for a local culture and media scrutiny co-exist? The aftermath of disaster in Hawaii has put this to the test.

Message marches into lives and homes, by Anmol Irfan: How Pakistan's history of demonising women's movements is still at large today.

A snake devouring its own tail, by JS Tennant: A Cuban journalist faces civic death, then forced emigration.

A 'seasoned dissident' speaks up, by Martin Bright: Writing against Russian authority has come full circle for Gennady Katsov.

Special Report: Having the last laugh - The comedians who won't be silenced

And God created laughter (so fuck off), by Shalom Auslander: On failing to be serious, and trading rabbis for Kafka.

The jokes that are made - and banned - in China, by Jemimah Steinfeld: Journalist turned comedian Vicky Xu is under threat after exposing Beijing’s crimes but in comedy she finds a refuge.

Giving Putin the finger, by John Sweeney: Reflecting on a comedy festival that tells Putin to “fuck off”.

Meet the Iranian cartoonist who had to flee his country, by Daisy Ruddock: Kianoush Ramezani is laughing in the face of the Ayatollah.

The SLAPP stickers, by Rosie Holt and Charlie Holt: Sometimes it’s not the autocrats, or the audience, that comedians fear, it’s the lawyers.

This great stage of fools, by Danson Kahyana: A comedy troupe in Uganda pushes the line on acceptable speech.

Joke's on Lukashenka speaking rubbish Belarusian. Or is it?, by Maria Sorensen: Comedy under an authoritarian regime could be hilarious, it it was allowed.

Laughing matters, by Daisy Ruddock: Knock knock. Who's there? The comedy police.

Taliban takeover jokes, by Spozhmai Maani and Rizwan Sharif: In Afghanistan, the Taliban can never by the punchline.

Turkey's standups sit down, by Kaya Ge: Turkey loses its sense of humour over a joke deemed offensive.

An unfunny double act, by Thiện Việt: A gold-plated steak and a maternal slap lead to problems for two comedians in Vietnam.

Dragged down, by Tilewa Kazeem: Nigeria's queens refuse to be dethroned.

Turning sorrow into satire, by Zahra Hankir: A lesson from Lebanon: even terrible times need comedic release.

'Hatred has won, the artist has lost', by Salil Tripathi: Hindu nationalism and cries of blasphemy are causing jokes to land badly in India.

Did you hear the one about...? No, you won't have, by Alexandra Domenech: Putin has strangled comedy in Russia, but that doesn't stop Russian voices.

Of Conservatives, cancel culture and comics, by Simone Marques: In Brazil, a comedy gay Jesus was met with Molotov cocktails.

Standing up for Indigenous culture, by Katie Dancey-Downs: Comedian Janelle Niles deals in the uncomfortable, even when she'd rather not.


Your truth or mine, by Bobby Duffy: Debate: Is there a free speech crisis on UK campuses?

All the books that might not get written, by Andrew Lownie: Freedom of information faces a right royal problem.

An image or a thousand words?, by Ruth Anderson: When to look at an image and when to look away.


Lukashenka's horror dream, by Alhierd Bacharevič and Mark Frary: The Belarusian author’s new collection of short stories is an act of resistance. We publish one for the first time in English.

Lost in time and memory, by Xue Tiwei: In a new short story, a man finds himself haunted by the ghosts of executions.

The hunger games, by Stephen Komarnyckyj and Mykola Khvylovy: The lesson of a Ukrainian writer’s death must be remembered today.

The woman who stopped Malta's mafia taking over, by Paul Caruana Galizia: Daphne Caruana Galizia’s son reckons with his mother’s assassination.

Contents – In bad faith: How religion is being weaponised by the right


The Autumn 2023 issue of Index looks at blasphemy laws, and how they are being weaponised by the religious right as a means of imposing intolerance. We wanted to understand the ways in which religion is being used by states as an excuse for censorship, and how this has played out in a global context.

The writers in this issue have examined blasphemy laws in countries all over the world, shining a light on the those who have been left voiceless or have been persecuted in the name of religion. These worrying stories paint a picture of a growing movement amongst the religious right that threatens to suppress those who do not conform to increasingly strict cultures and norms.

Up Front

Faithful foot soldiers, by Jemimah Steinfeld: The religious right is in, our rights to speech out.

The Index, by Mark Frary: From fraught elections in Mali to Russians launching VPNs, this is free expression in focus.


Oiling the wheels of injustice, by Francis Clarke and Mark Frary: Behind a mega-city construction and the roar of Formula 1, Saudi Arabia is driving human rights further into the ground.

Pinochet's ghost still haunts, by Juan Carlos Ramírez Figueroa: The Chilean dictator is long gone, but support lingers on.

The dissident lives on, by Martin Bright: The dissident is not dead, long live the dissident.

No place to hide, by Nik Williams: Transnational repression has no borders in a digital world.

Peer pressure, by Thiện Việt: In China, enforced social rankings aren’t just confined to the realms of Black Mirror.

No country for anxious men, by Laura Silvia Battaglia: A mental health crisis in Yemen has left people locked up with no voice.

Nollywood gets naked, by Tilewa Kazeem: It’s getting hot in Nigeria, as the film scene strips back on what’s deemed inappropriate.

Policing symbolism, by Jimena Ledgard: Peruvian protesters are being met with violence, and not even flower carpets are safe.

Setting the story straight, by Danson Kahyana: Uganda’s new anti-homosexuality law is having an unexpected effect, with literature being ripped apart.

A marriage made in transgression, by Alexandra Domenech: Despite being tortured by security forces and her fiancé thrown in jail, Russian dissident Alexandra Popova is staying put in Moscow.

Out of the oven, into the fire, by Mir Aiyaz: Rohingya Muslims hoping for open arms in India are getting a cold reception.

Special Report: In bad faith - how religion is being weaponised by the right

For the love of God?, by Rebecca L Root: As intolerance rises in many parts of the world, a misplaced profanity can spell out death.

Worshippers of power, by Jemimah Steinfeld: Under the eye of the religious right, Margaret Atwood discusses why a blasphemy accusation holds so much power.

King David he is not, by JP O'Malley: The USA's religious right is playing the Trump Card.

No sex please, we're Hindus, by Salil Tripathi: Oppenheimer isn't just breaking box office records, it's offending Hindu nationalists.

In the name of the father?, by Francis Clarke: A far from extensive list of the countries currently imposing sentences on those who "offend".

A call to harm, by Ayesha Khan: Pakistan has some of the world's harshest blasphemy laws, but punishments come from those outside the law too.

The blasphemy obstacle course, by Mai Al-Nakib: Kuwait's rocky relationship with blasphemy laws is breeding a generation of self-censored authors.

Self-worship is the new religion, by Tara Isabella Burton: A new faith is emerging and it's not necessarily open to different views.

Think of the children, by Katie Dancey-Downs: When Juno Dawson's stories are banned, is it really about the books?

Turkey's zealots still want blood, by Kaya Genç: A foundation related to the controversial and failed translation of The Satanic Verses continues to be attacked.

Sharia Law and disorder, by Kola Alapinni: When the state fails to step in, violent mobs control the punishments for blasphemy in Nigeria.

Loose hair in Tehran, by Farnaz Haeri: The writer describes her first time walking out in Iran without a headscarf.

Handmaid's tale in a holy land, by Jo-Ann Mort: In an Israel that is eroding women's rights, female-free billboards and segregated beaches are just some of the battlegrounds.

Practise what they preach, by Simon Coates: Religious values are an excuse to eradicate LGBTQ+ discussion in the UAE, while tolerance is forgotten.

Poland's papal problem, by Kseniya Tarasevich: One Pope's lack of integrity paints a picture of Poland's infiltrated politics.


Turkish and European courts failed me, by Nedim Türfent: How one journalist swapped a press card for a "terrorist" badge.

Truth in seduction, by Mark Hollingsworth: A historian struggles to lift the cloak of secrecy on a KGB-orchestrated sex scandal.

First they came for the female journalists, by Zahra Joya: The space for women in Afghanistan is ever-diminishing, and female journalists are crucial.

Speak, debate, challenge, by Ruth Anderson: Index's guiding framework remains the same in a 2023 context.


Will Paulina ever rest?, by Ariel Dorfman and Jemimah Steinfeld: The Death and the Maiden protagonist fights for justice once more. Plus an exclusive new short story.

Lines of inquiry, by Richard Norton-Taylor: The thorn in intelligence establishment's side explains the growing pressure on whistleblowers

India’s Right to Know under threat as social media giants bend to censorship

Last week Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shocked the world by claiming that Canadian resident and Sikh separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar had been assassinated by Indian government agents in an act of foreign interference. For months after Nijjar’s death in June, Canadian Sikhs reported that they too were dealing with Indian government interference: the government of India was frequently ordering Facebook to take down their posts relating to Nijjar’s death. Prominent Sikh accounts and civilians alike found their posts blocked or unpublished due to “legal demands” coming directly from the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in what may be the Indian government’s attempt to export its draconian censorship culture to discourse overseas.

All this has unfolded just ahead of the International Day for Universal Access to Information, which falls on 28 September. The Right to Know Day, as it is otherwise known, hails information access via the internet as a tool to protect human rights.

It is not the first time civilians - both within and outside of India - have faced obstacles on social media platforms for posting information or opinions that go against Modi’s carefully crafted narrative. Ultimately the Right to Know does not exist in Modi’s India and social media platforms like Facebook, X (formerly Twitter) and Instagram are part of the problem, kowtowing to Indian-government pressure to censor dissent.

Take the example of X CEO Elon Musk, whose proud defenses of free speech are undermined by his frequent capitulation to the demands of Indian government censors. He adopted a surprisingly meek tone when asked by the BBC about why X had blocked content relating to India: the Modi Question, a BBC documentary released earlier this year that exposes Modi’s complicity in episodes of massive anti-Muslim violence.

"The rules in India for what can appear on social media are quite strict, and we can't go beyond the laws of a country,” Musk told the BBC after X complied with Modi’s demand to delete all links to watch the film. “If we have a choice of either our people go to prison, or we comply with the laws, we'll comply with the laws."

“Quite strict” is putting it lightly. The Modi government’s censorship aims to remake India, transforming it from a secular democracy into a Hindu supremacist nation, one where religious minorities, specifically Muslims and Christians, are stripped of their basic human rights and reduced to second-class citizens. Any disapproval of Modi or his authoritarian goals is suppressed via the Information Technology Act, which forces social media platforms to “fact-check” all content posted about the government. These expansive powers – which Human Rights Watch cites as “enabling state surveillance” – allows the government to censor virtually any content it labels as “disinformation”, “objectionable” or “anti-national”.

The resulting crackdown on free speech has contributed to India’s top-5 ranking in the list of countries that submitted censorship requests to X in 2022. That same year, India also became the world leader in internet shutdowns, after blacking out web access a shocking 84 times. Over half of these incidents were imposed on Muslim-majority Kashmir, shortly after Modi stripped the region of its semi-autonomous status.

Censorship tightened its grip in response to mounting civil resistance in India. In the early months of 2020, as Delhi witnessed a surge in anti-Muslim violence, farmers rallied against unjust farm laws, and the government struggled to manage the Covid-19 crisis under Modi's leadership, X reported that the government made over 2,700 official requests for content removal. Content related to the protests led by Muslims against the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act was also subject to removal, and the accounts of activists were blocked. By the end of the year, nearly 10,000 tweets had been deleted. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, most of these tweets were mere opinions on these events, satirical posts and expressions of solidarity with protesters.

Any attempts by journalists and activists to counter the pro-Modi propaganda circulated by mostly corporate-controlled media are labeled “anti-national” and met with consequences. In Kashmir, where human rights abuses by security forces are widespread, journalists who post content on rights violations can face detention under draconian anti-terror laws. Those who debunk Hindu supremacist propaganda, like prominent Muslim journalist Mohammad Zubair, arrested in 2022 over a 2018 tweet, have received notices from X claiming that their fact-checking posts violate Indian law.

Just days ago, the Jammu and Kashmir police reportedly claimed to have secured the direct cooperation of social media giants to access information on users engaged in spreading “anti-national sentiment” - an allegation often leveled by the regime against activists, journalists and everyday civilians who criticise the government or Hindu nationalism. Without access to secure private communications, information sharing in India will surely undergo a serious chilling effect.

All the while hate speech against minorities appears to be given a free pass in India. A prime example is within Modi’s own Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is notorious for running an IT cell partially dedicated to harassing and threatening their critics with armies of online trolls. The IT cell also seeks to scare civilians into voting for the BJP by flooding Facebook, WhatsApp and X with fear-mongering propaganda against Muslims, often describing them as violent freeloaders.

Other Hindu extremists also rely on social media to promote and carry out violence, posting everything from slur-filled tweets to horrific videos of Muslims being violently attacked. Mainstream “news” personality Suresh Chavhanke, who consistently refers to Muslims as “terrorists”, once posted on X asking his hundreds of millions of followers if he should shoot a group of Muslims. A well-known Hindu militant accused of sparking deadly violence against Muslims, Monu Manesar, received a Gold Play Button from YouTube for running a massively popular channel that filmed and glorified cow vigilante attacks against Muslims.

Another influential Hindu militant, Bittu Bajrangi, uploaded hate speeches to social media that some have alleged played a direct role in triggering mass violence in Haryana state last month.

Posts offering firearms for sale in Hindu militant Facebook groups have gone untouched for an extensive period of time, while Facebook responded to activist concerns by claiming such posts didn’t violate any community policies. (Only after the Wall Street Journal inquired into the posts did Facebook finally take them down.)

The promotion of hateful content at the expense of marginalised voices across all these platforms is troubling to say the least. Facebook, X and other platforms are aiding in the death of free speech in India. Abetting these human rights abuses on such a massive scale is unacceptable. They should be protecting the right to freedom of information in India and wherever they operate, instead of helping foreign governments along in their spiral towards autocracy. They must learn from Facebook’s own role in the Rohingya genocide, following which victims in the USA and the UK took legal action against the social media firm, accusing it of failing to prevent incitement of violence.

It is long past time for social media companies to stand up to the censorship demands of the Modi regime and stand behind the Right to Know in India and elsewhere.

Rasheed Ahmed is the co-founder and Executive Director of the Indian American Muslim Council, the USA’s oldest and largest Indian Muslim diaspora organisation

Twitter ‘Blue’: Sex workers, censorship and the fight for online visibility

"In the past couple years, I've gotten kicked off of PayPal and Venmo," sex worker Maya Morena told me. "I've gotten kicked off Twitter. I had 80,000 followers on Twitter; I had 30,000 followers on Instagram, I had 30,000 on Tumblr. I lost all those platforms."

Morena's experience isn't unusual, though it also isn't well known. When the right talks about censorship, it focuses obsessively on liberals protesting conservative speakers. When the left focuses on censorship, it points to the efforts by red states to criminalise the teaching of LGBT and Black studies. The longstanding, and worsening, policing and censorship of sex workers online is seen by all as either justifiable or unimportant. It is neither though; the censorship of sex workers affects their livelihood, their ability to advocate for themselves, and puts their safety and their very lives at risk.

That's why when Twitter started promising that Twitter Blue would boost visibility and engagement on the platform, many sex workers signed up. The service hasn't really solved sex worker's problems. But the hopes around it, and the backlash to it, demonstrate just how isolated sex workers are, and how much they need solidarity from those who care about free speech.

A Sustained Assault on Sex Worker Speech

Government, gatekeepers and the public have long been very uncomfortable with sexual speech, going all the way back to laws that criminalised the shipping of sexual material through the mail in the late 1800s.

The early internet gave sex workers the ability to advertise directly to clients and to be visible online in ways that had been previously unimaginable. Sites like Backpage and Craigslist allowed people to promote erotic services and, importantly, allowed them to vet clients. Homicides of sex workers cratered in cities where Craigslist opened erotic services websites as sex workers were able to get off the streets and out of danger.

Despite clear evidence that free speech made sex workers safer, policy makers and anti-sex advocates insisted, with little to back them up, that adult services on the internet contributed to trafficking.

The "watershed moment" for sexual censorship, according to Olivia Snow, a dominatrix and a research fellow at the UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry, came in 2018, with the bipartisan passage of FOSTA/SESTA. These laws made platforms legally responsible for user-generated sexual content. That gave many platforms an incentive, or an excuse, to purge sex workers.

Backpage was shut down by the government in 2018; Tumblr purged most NSFW content the same year. So did Patreon. Payment processors and banks have been escalating a longstanding war on sex workers, preventing them from accessing funds or doing business. Even OnlyFans, which has built its business almost entirely on sex workers, decided to get rid of sexual content, though it reversed its decision after a backlash from creators.

As sex workers have been shut out of most sites, Twitter has become more and more important to the community. "Twitter is the only major social media platform that tolerates us," Snow said. "It is by default the least shitty of the platforms."

Twitter Is Welcoming—But Not That Welcoming

recent study found that 97% of sex workers rely on Twitter as their top site for finding followers. Writer and sex worker Jessie Sage explained that while she has accounts on sex worker sites like Eros and Tryst, "the people who book me tend to do so because they find me and then they go look at my socials." Clients use Twitter to verify that sex workers are who they say they are, and to see if they have shared interests. And, Sage says, Twitter allows sex workers to share information. "Being able to connect with other sex workers allows us to create pathways and resources and screening resources for each other that keep us safe."

Sage also says Twitter is vital because it lets sex workers show that they're not just sex workers. "Most of my Twitter's just talking about books I like to read and things that I'm thinking about," she told me. "But there's something very political about that, because I'm saying that I am a sex worker, and I'm also all of these other things. And when we get shoved off of social media, we lose that and we become dehumanised. And when we become dehumanised, our existence becomes much more ripe for abuse."

While Twitter is somewhat welcoming to sex workers though, it's not that welcoming. Sex worker accounts are often deprioritized by the algorithm (a process sometimes referred to as shadowbanning). Deprioritisation can mean that accounts don't show up in search results or that they don't show up in follower's feeds. That makes it hard to build an audience. It can also make it easy for bad actors to impersonate sex workers and catfish clients. "Fake accounts on Twitter are able to get more followers than me, because I'm already censored," Morena told me. "It's a big problem for all sex workers."

Twitter Blue to the Rescue, Sort Of

In December, new Twitter owner Elon Musk claimed that for $8/month, Twitter Blue users would begin to be prioritised in search and in conversations on Twitter. Many sex workers hoped Twitter Blue would give them more visibility.

Sex worker Andres Stones says that in his experience post-Musk Twitter has strangled his engagement and has "had a very large and negative impact" on his business." It's not clear whether this is because Musk is more aggressive in restricting adult content, or whether the new Twitter simply throttles engagement for everyone who isn't on Twitter Blue. Either way, Stones says, "I started subscribing [to Twitter Blue] out of necessity." It hasn't gotten him back to where he was before, but it's at least slowed the slide. "It's been helpful only insofar as not having it was a death knell for engagement."

Other sex workers report similar experiences. Morena says it hasn't been that helpful, though it's given her content an "extra push." Sage struggled because Twitter Blue didn't allow her to change her screen name easily, which made it difficult for her to advertise her travel dates.

Block the Blue

Sex workers saw Twitter Blue as a possible way to navigate censorship and deprioritisation on the one important social media platform that warily tolerates their existence. But in the broader cultural conversation, Twitter Blue was portrayed as a service solely for Elon Musk superfans and fascist trolls.

Mashable reported on a Block the Blue campaign, which encouraged Twitter users to adopt a Blocklist targeting all Twitter Blue accounts. It was embraced by NBC News reporter Ben Collins, Alejandra Caballo of the Harvard Law Cyberlaw Clinic and other large progressive accounts. Twitter comedian and celebrity @dril told Binder, "99% of twitter blue guys are dead-eyed cretins who are usually trying to sell you something stupid and expensive." Blocking them, @dril suggested, was funny and a way to undermine Musk's right wing political agenda.

But a small study by TechCrunch found that the vast majority of Twitter Blue accounts were not right wing harassment accounts. Instead, people used the service because they wanted features like the ability to post longer videos, or two-factor authentication—or because they were, like sex workers, businesspeople trying to boost engagement.

Ashley, a sex worker and researcher of online platform behavior who did her own study of Twitter Blue users, told me that the Block the Blue list is frustratingly counterproductive. The best way to block hateful trolls, she argued, is to block the followers of large right-wing troll accounts.

"I'm all in favour of users being empowered to block people," she says, "but combined with the fact that so many sex workers are using this, [Block the Blue] is really just sharing a sex worker block list. Because there's way more sex workers than hateful people on there."

No Voice

Ashley adds that the majority of Twitter Blue users are probably just random people experimenting with the service. The point though is that sex workers are using the service at high rates, but have had little success in getting their interests, or existence, recognised by progressives who are supposedly fighting for marginalised people. Matt Binder, who wrote the Mashable article about Block the Blue, told me he doesn't believe that sex worker concerns did much to interrupt or slow the Block the Blue campaign which has "become somewhat of a meme on the platform," he said. (He added that he thinks more people block individual users than use the block list, and doesn't think there's been much "friendly fire.")

Musk and the right are no friends to sex workers; as Snow told me, the right-wing "neo-fash, neo-Satanic Panic" targeting LGBT people is built on terror and hatred of anything associated with sexuality, which includes sex workers (many of whom are LGBT themselves.) But progressive leaders often don't feel accountable to sex workers either, and mostly ignore sex workers when they say (for example) that blocking everyone using Twitter Blue will further isolate them.

Twitter Blue isn't a solution. But it's a reminder that sex workers face extreme and debilitating censorship. More people need to listen to them.