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

Contents

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

Features

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.

Comment

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.

Culture

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.

We must not stay silent on Iran’s use of the death penalty

Terrorism, pain, suffering, torture, blood and fear. These are the currencies the Iranian regime trades in. From their support for global terror groups to their development of weapons of mass destruction - this is a regime which seeks to be a force for ill in the world. But while others focus on their geo-political impact it is their treatment of their citizenry which most concerns Index, especially those dissidents whose bravery inspires us every day.

It is clear that the protection of citizens comes secondary to the Iranian authorities who prioritise holding onto power over all other matters.

The murder of Mahsa (Jina) Amini, who was just 22-years-old, following her arrest in Tehran for an alleged breach of the Islamic republic’s strict dress code, on 16 September 2022 saw a new phase in challenging the status quo. This was the spark that lit the fuse on the Iranians' want for freedom with ongoing protests across the country.

In response to these protests, the regime in Iran has doubled down on their repression. Eight protesters have been executed for daring to participate in the protests. Iran is ruthlessly targeting anyone who dares to challenge one of the most tyrannical regimes in the world. In recent days we have seen their barbaric treatment of one of our Freedom of Expression Award winners, Toomaj Salehi, who has been re-arrested after detailing the horrendous torture he has received in prison.

We will write a great deal in the coming months about what is happening to Toomaj. Today though I want to highlight the experiences of the voiceless. As ever with such regimes it is the children and the vulnerable who suffer most. Those whose voices are easiest to silence.

We all would agree, I hope, that children should be given warmth, love and security as they grow up. It is the most basic of human rights. This is simply not the case in Iran.

Their repression knows no bounds and has culminated in their use of the death penalty on a child.

Hamidreza Azari, a 17-year-old, was executed by the Iranian government as part of their recent slew of capital punishments. Hamidreza allegedly killed a man during a fight when he was 16 years old. We have no details of the incident but what we do know is that he is not in prison. He is now in a grave; murdered by the state, along with Milad Zohrevand, a dissident.

This act is against international law. Juveniles cannot be subject to capital punishment. Iran knows this only too well - which is why they lied about Hamidreza’s age in the official reports.

In the United Kingdom protesting does not come with the fear of death. It’s vitally important that people like me and you use our freedom to extol those of others. If we fail to stand up for the voiceless, then the estimated 582 people who have perished at the hands of the Iranian government since 2022 will continue to grow.

Tyrants win where silence prevails.

Moments of Freedom 2023

Moments of Freedom was Index on Censorship’s 2023 year-end campaign where we asked our readers and supporters to vote on the moments during the past twelve months that have given them hope that the world is not as bad as it sometimes feels.

Index’s staff and board looked back over the year and highlighted their moments where freedom of expression has been strengthened or celebrated. This could have been through the introduction of new legislation supporting free expression, the release of a prisoner of conscience or the escape of a dissident from tyranny to a safe third country.

Egyptian blogger Abdelrahman "Moka" Tarek reaches safety

Launch of the Begum Academy

First anniversary of women's protests in Iran

Rwanda declared "not a safe country"

Alexei Navalny's reaction to latest charges - Russia

Badiucao exhibition in Warsaw

Silent strike protests in Myanmar

Release of Mortaza Behboudi and Matiullah Wesa

Afghan TV present Spozhmai Maani finds refuge in France

Life and death in Iran’s prisons

Narges Mohammadi is locked in a vicious circle. The 2023 Nobel Peace Prize winner has been held in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison since September 2022 and the Iranian authorities seem determined to keep the prominent human rights activist there.

Mohammadi became active in fighting against the oppression of women in Iran as a student physicist in the 1990s and has promoted human rights ever since, including campaigning for an end to the death penalty in a country where 582 were executed last year alone.

In her nomination for the Peace Prize, Berit Reiss-Andersen, the head of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, said: “Her brave struggle has come with tremendous personal costs. Altogether, the regime has arrested her 13 times, convicted her five times, and sentenced her to a total of 31 years in prison and 154 lashes.”

During her current detention, Mohammadi has been summoned to the courts on numerous occasions to face new charges. Yet Mohammadi argues that the revolutionary courts are not independent judicial bodies and she has also stopped lawyers attending on her behalf for that same reason.

Some of these charges relate to her ongoing human rights work from inside prison, including smuggling out an article which was published in the New York Times on the anniversary of Mahsa (Jina) Amini’s death in custody, the event that sparked the “Woman, Life, Freedom” protests that erupted in Iran in 2022. Mohammadi’s message from prison was: “The more of us they lock up, the stronger we become.”

At the beginning of last week, the woman human rights defender started a hunger strike in protest against delayed and neglectful medical care for sick prisoners, as well as the rule which makes wearing the "mandatory hijab" a condition for the transfer of the women prisoners to medical facilities. Then, earlier this week Mohammadi heard that she was to face a series of new charges, but after refusing to wear hijab the prosecutor prohibited her from attending court. As a result neither Mohammadi nor her lawyer know the nature of the new charges levelled against her. She has now ended her hunger strike.

The regime will be infuriated with her refusal to engage with the justice system, while Mohammadi knows that each time she doesn’t attend it draws yet more attention to her plight.

Mohammadi knows only too well the methods the authorities use to break prisoners. Index has recently been given a video made by Mohammadi just before she returned to jail, shot by the Iranian film-maker Vahid Zarezadeh. In it she says that people should not be surprised if, in the event that she dies in jail, the authorities blame an undiagnosed health problem, perhaps a dodgy heart.

"This system sets up the conditions for the prisoner's death," she says.

In sharing the video, she has put the regime on notice that they are being watched. You can watch the video here.

Zarezadeh tells me, "It was filmed at the time when she was rushed from the prison to the hospital due to the blockage of her heart veins, which were opened through angioplasty. She was on medical leave and not in good health. Shortly after this video, she was returned to Qarchak women's prison."

He says, "Qarchak Women's Prison is a notorious facility designed for women, where many human rights activists and opponents of compulsory hijab are held. The prison's lack of adequate drinking water, as well as poor hygiene and medical care, leads to the spread of various diseases among inmates. Originally used as a livestock centre, Qarchak has been expanded over time. Numerous reports highlight human rights violations in this prison, yet Iranian judicial authorities show no inclination to change the conditions of detainment."

Iran’s appalling human rights record has also come under scrutiny at this week’s Alternative Human Rights Expo, which highlighted human rights issues related to the suppression of freedom of expression and assembly in the Middle East and North Africa. The virtual event, hosted by the Gulf Center for Human Rights and its partners, was held to focus attention on the 28th session of the Conference of Parties (COP28) to be held from 30 November to 12 December 2023 in the United Arab Emirates. It featured artists, poets, writers and singers from the region including Iranian poet Fatemeh Ekhtesari.

Ekhtesari performed her poem She is Not Woman as part of the event (which is available to view here) which includes the following lines:

We’re sick of queuing for the gallows
Clotted grief in our blood
Trouble is all that’s left
Rage is all we own

Narges Mohammadi’s rage is clear for everyone to see. It is high time that she and other human rights defenders in Iran’s jails are unconditionally released.