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

“They simply do not care about us”

Nigeria's elections have always been rooted in the socio-political marginalisation of women. Political positions have been largely given to men and the women who participate get bullied out. This was demonstrated during the elections this year and the aftermath was visible in the National Assembly (NASS). Out of 110 Senate seats, women currently occupy three, and out of 360 House of Representatives seats, women occupy 14. Women hold 17 seats out of 470 total seats in NASS, down from 21 at the last election. Political parties received several submitted nominations for various political offices from women but only backed a few to run in the general elections. This jarring disparity between men and women in parliament is why Nigerian women suffer greatly.

Section 42 of Nigeria's legislation provides citizens the right to freedom from discrimination on the grounds of sex, but the rest of the constitution is ridden with prejudiced laws that belittle the voices of women. Too many of them support the violence and segregation meted out against women and their voices can barely be heard over the clampdown of popular misogynistic tenets. It seems like an intentional ploy to keep Nigerian women on a leash.

In the constitution, for example, spousal rape is deemed impossible and men can beat their wives as long as it doesn't result in ‘grievous’ bodily harm.

Another example is the police act, which stipulates that female police officers must apply for permission to get married and must receive approval before they continue with the union. This doesn't apply to men. In 2012, a judge declared this section unconstitutional and illegal and yet it's still a part of the regulation.

“It's always men making policies for women. Policies about our bodies, policies about our movements, policies about our lives,” Nimisire Etomimo, a gender equality advocate and writer who joined in a 2022 protest, told Index.

The situation reflects deep-seated traditional and religious beliefs. Nigerian women are exhausted. They need only look at what happened last year to understand that the new government will bring about little to no change.

On 1 March 2022 Nigeria's male-dominated National Assembly met to vote separately on 68 bills that would contribute to the constitutional amendment process. Five of the bills were about passing legislation to ensure affirmative action in political parties and other elective positions for women and revisiting harmful laws about them.

NASS was crammed with members of both the Senate and members of the House of Representatives that day. In the large conference room, there were audible murmurs between the men who looked to be making meaningful conversations. But ultimately their facial expressions gave away that their minds were made up before they even entered the room.

The bills were raised and every time one was called a resounding “No!” followed. There were only a handful of women in the room to the hundreds of men. The bills had no chance of a fair hearing and judgment.

“The gender bills are continuously getting thrown out because there are not enough women in the House,” Oluwadamilola Akintewe, a lawyer and speaker for UNICEF Nigeria, told me. “The bigger problem is the issue of patriarchy though. It strongly antagonizes the fight for equality in Nigeria because men think we're trying to make them lesser than us by calling for equal treatment.”

Nigerian women later took matters into their own hands. After the bills were voted down they started a protest that went on for over a week. Women across the country took to the streets. But like the bills that were dismissed, these protests went unheard and unresponded to.

“They simply do not care about us,” Etomimo said. “The parliament is dominated by men who feel like they can do nothing about the staggering contrast between how men and women are represented in society.”

Three bills were later reported to be partially rescinded by a lower House in what now seems like a ploy to suppress the protests. There have been no updates about them till now.

“The National Assembly has been consistent about rejecting any notion of equality,” Ayisha Osori, lawyer, politician, and author of Love Does Not Win Elections, said.

“Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajamiala, who is now Chief of Staff to the president, has been very vocal and clear in his position that any type of affirmative action for women is discriminatory against men,” she continued. “For him, women don't need any level playing field. They just need to get their hands dirty.”

Passing the pro-equality bills into law would not completely relieve Nigerian women of their circumstances, but it would give women leverage over how matters regarding them are considered. In May, a bill seeking equal rights for men, women, and persons living with disabilities passed second reading at the Senate. There were oppositions to its framing as an equality bill and not an equity bill. Members of NASS said that it would need to be modified before it can be brought up again for passage.

“I think that supporting equality is not something that they [NASS] give a lot of thought. They don't see the discrepancy or the discordance in saying they care about women's rights. The excuse they give is religious and cultural,” Osori said.

Destroyed ballot boxes, arrests, assaults – Nigeria reels from latest elections

On 25 February, Punch Newspaper journalist Gbenga Oloniniran stood near the Governor of Rivers State’s residence in Southern Nigeria, covering the recent presidential election. As policemen gathered and arrested young people at a polling station, Oloniniran brought out his camera, taking snapshots of the incident. Instantly, the policemen left the youths, pounced on Oloniniran, snatched his camera, and bundled him away in a van. They denied him the right to cover the elections.

This was not an isolated incident. At least 14 journalists and media workers covering the presidential election were detained, intimidated or attacked by security forces, political groups or citizens. During the state elections held on 18 and 19 March, at least 28 more journalists suffered the same treatment, with many more cases likely going unreported.

"They threatened me, and that was under the rain, and I was shivering," Bolanle Olabimtan, a journalist at The Cable, told Index after she was attacked in Delta State. She was punched, and had the photos deleted from her phone.

Haruna Mohammed Salisu, CEO of WikkiTimes, was arrested while covering a protest during the presidential elections. He was detained and charged with inciting disturbance of public peace. He claims he had his phone taken, was interrogated by security personnel and was then assaulted by violent supporters of the governor.

“My experience in detention serves as a stark reminder of how vulnerable journalists are in Nigeria,” he wrote in WikkiTimes.

On March 18 unidentified men attacked an Arise TV crew consisting of reporter Oba Adeoye, cameraman Opeyemi Adenihun and driver Yusuf Hassan. Adenihun suffered facial injuries and their drone was seized. Meanwhile in Ogun State, Adejoke Adeleye, a News Agency of Nigeria reporter, was attacked by a mob when filming at a voting station. Five people, including one masked person wielding an axe, chased the group of journalists that included Adeleye, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. In Lagos, 10 people hit reporter Amarachi Amushie and camera operator Aliu Adeshina from the privately-owned broadcaster Africa Independent Television, as they reported at a polling station. Security agencies issued threats. They harassed Adesola Ikulajolu, a freelance investigative reporter, deleting the image folder in his phone.

Nigeria is ranked at 129 out of 180 nations in the 2022 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders, with this latest assault on press freedom demonstrating part of the reason for the ranking.

After the attacks, Dupe Fehintola, Chairman of a branch of the Nigeria Union of Journalists, made a statement saying: “We condemn these attacks on journalists."

During the elections, members of the Nigerian media investigated potential links between political parties and violent attackers, who threatened voters unless they proved they were casting their ballots in favour of the ruling All Progressives Party.

Adebola Ajayi, a journalist at People's Gazette, experienced that violence first hand, saying: “I was attacked by political thugs at a polling unit in Orile-Oshodi ward in Lagos.”

This violence may have contributed to the fact that 71% of voters abstained from the elections. The election winner, APC's Ahmed Tinubu, received only 8.8 million votes, while challengers Atiku Abubakar of the Peoples Democratic Party gathered 6.9 million and Peter Obi of the Labour Party received 6.1 million, in a country of 93 million registered voters and a population of over 200 million.

Evidence gathered by the media – including assaults on electoral officials and an incident where attackers destroyed ballot boxes with axes – showed that violence marked the elections. The pressure on journalists as they faced this violence themselves prevented them from covering the elections fairly.

Nearly two weeks after the end of the state and presidential elections, the media remains shaken.

“We strongly condemn these unacceptable attacks, which constitutes both the violation of fundamental human rights of the affected journalists and media worker and a major assault on press freedom," Melody Akinjiyan, the spokesman of the International Press Center, Lagos, told Index.