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.

How to request access to closed files on the Royal Family

There are hundreds of files on the Royal Family in the National Archives that remain closed today, some dating back almost 100 years. You can see details of these files here. These files are of public interest and should be readily available.

To make a request, go to the National Archives website using the link above and then click on the file which you are interested in. This will reveal the record entry below. Click on the Sumbit FOI request button (indicated below with a red arrow).

Complete the form with your details and in the Additional information box write "These files on the Royal Family are of public interest and should be readily available. Please open the files and #EndRoyalSecrecy."

Thank you for your support.

Royal secrecy surveyed

Eight out of 10 respondents said they had been unable to conduct their work researching the royal family without conflict, difficulty or compromise beyond that encountered in other areas of their research. One believed it has become worse. They said: “As a journalist visiting the National Archives I have noticed that in recent years almost all government files relating to royalty have been withheld long beyond what would have been the previous 30 year limit. Increasing deference?”

In answer to the question “Have you ever tried to access information that should be publicly available related to the royal family (including their close friends and associates) but is not” only one answered no. Please note this person was also happy to be named – the historian Andrew Roberts – and was keen to highlight he has never had a bad experience researching the royals, a fact that should go on the record here.

In contrast to Roberts’ positive experience, another historian had a glut of negative ones, ranging from “false statements made by government departments and other public authorities and retention of files by government departments under blanket ‘Lord Chancellor instruments’ for decades (abusing a proviso in the Public Records Act) instead of transferring them to the National Archives” to the “chaotic state of the Metropolitan Police’s archives, including ‘missing’ files” and “the ‘sealing’ of royal wills”.

Six told us they had looked for material in the archive related to the royal family and found it had been removed. Needless to say they all found that suspicious. On this one comment is worth noting: ‘I was told when working at the Lambeth Palace Library Archives that some sources held by the library relating to the Royal Family for the 1940s and 1950s were simply not available for researchers to consult, as per the request of the Royal Archives. Whilst engaged with the BBC Written Archives, their policy on royal material was also updated (as per a request of the royal liaison) which meant that any previously unseen BBC files relating to royalty had to be vetted and sensitive information removed before it could be presented to researchers.”

Given the prevalence of SLAPPs in the UK – strategic lawsuits against public participation – we were curious about whether there were any members of the royal family that people would not write about negatively for fear of legal or reputational repercussions. The answer here was mixed. Three said yes but the rest said no.

All except two believed that access to the Royal Archives should be covered by freedom of information legislation. Most comments for yes were similar to this: “Because the monarchy is a public institution. I believe the Royal Archives’ current opt out of FoI requests is based on the royal family being a ‘private’ family. This has clearly not been the case for more than 150 years: the monarchy is a public institution of state. And, as an institution of state, the monarchy needs to be accountable.”

Interestingly five said the Keeper of the Queen’s (now King’s) Archive does not act in a transparent way in terms of granting access to the Royal Archives. One provided more context: “They seem to operate according to a pre-determined list of documents that are regarded as off-limits - even to the point of going to court to ensure that Prince Philip’s will should be embargoed for 90 years.”

Finally, the real crunch question - we asked whether anyone had ever wanted to publish something on the Royal Family and not been able to. This was a 50-50 split.

Crown Confidential: Access to Historical Records about the Royal Family

]Are the British Royal Family the real enemies of history? Over the decades they have actively suppressed uncomfortable narratives about themselves. Hundreds of files in the national and royal archives remain inaccessible to the general public, files that many would argue are of public interest. The result? Holes in our country's history.

These are some of the conclusions from the team at the magazine Index on Censorship, who carried out an investigation into royal historical censorship for their Winter issue. As part of the launch of the magazine, a panel of speakers will discuss the findings alongside their experiences of trying to access historical archives. This will be a lively discussion and one with heightened importance following the death of Queen Elizabeth II in September and ahead of the coronation of Charles III in the spring.

Speaking on the panel will be:

The event will be chaired by Jemimah Steinfeld, editor-in-chief at Index on Censorship.

When: Wednesday , 5:30pm - 7:00pm

Where: Woburn Suite, G22/26, Ground Floor, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU

Tickets: Free, advance booking essential