Teona Tsintsadze

Comedy is no laughing matter for authoritarian states

Around the world, stand-ups and satirists are facing the wrath of humorless governments. Here are five people who cracked gags and then faced serious consequences

Telling jokes is a tricky business. While it’s always great to be met with gales of laughter, little is more crushing than a punchline not quite landing. But, for some comedians and commentators, attempts at humor can be even more risky. Around the world, authoritarian governments are increasingly unable to see the funny side of anything even slightly critical of their rule, imposing harsh penalties — up to and including imprisonment — for a harmless wisecrack. Here are some recent examples that caught our attention.

  1. In October, the Istanbul-based Syrian journalist Majed Shamaa, used his TV show “Street Poll” to respond to a recent viral video of a Turkish man complaining that, while he couldn’t afford bananas, Syrian refugees were buying them by the kilogram. In a short sketch, Shamaa looked suspicious of his surroundings, bought a bag full of bananas, then ducked into an alleyway and furtively tucked into them. On October 30, police detained him for inciting hatred and insulting the Turkish people. He spent nine days in jail before being released.

2. In March, Idrak Mirzalizade, a Moscow-based Azerbaijani comedian, was a guest on the popular TV comedy show “Razgony.” During his slot, he made a joke about discrimination against non-Russians within the country and how difficult it is to rent an apartment if you have a foreign-sounding name. He went on to say that, after successfully renting one place, he found that the previous tenants, who were Russians, had left behind a mattress covered in excrement. After acres of pro-government media coverage stating that he had insulted the people of Russia, thousands of online threats and one physical attack, he was convicted of inciting hatred, jailed for 10 days and banned from Russia for life.

3. Also in Russia, comedian Denis Chuzhoi became the subject of a police investigation following a stand-up tour in October, in which he referenced an online rumor that President Vladimir Putin has lifts built into his shoes, in order to look taller. “For me that explains everything,” he said. “My wife wears shoes with high heels. In the evening, she’ll come home, throw her shoes off and say, ‘Denis, we need to fuck up America and kill all the gays.’”

4. Over the border in Kazakhstan, 25-year-old activist Temirlan Ensebek found policemen searching his apartment in April. His laptop and mobile phones were confiscated. He was then taken in for questioning about “deliberately spreading false information.” The reason? For a few weeks, he had run a satirical Instagram page titled Qaznews24. One post, stating that the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Kazakhstan proposed “to assign Nursultan Nazarbayev the status of a god in the national constitution,” mocked the personality cult surrounding the autocratic former president. 

5. In January, Indian comic Munawar Faruqui was detained by police in Indore, Madhya Pradesh, for a joke he didn’t even make. Faruqui, who is Muslim, was accused of insulting Hinduism during his shows by the son of a member of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Though there was no evidence to back up the accusation, Faruqui spent over a month in jail. After being freed, he has come under frequent attack from Hindu nationalists and has had to cancel a number of national performances, following threats of violence.

Masho Lomashvili contributed to research.

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