Stand up for Satire: As satirists worldwide are targeted by repressive regimes, a starry fundraising show celebrates the gift of free speech

Stand up for the right to mock – and no ‘buts’

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The massacre at the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo provoked international outrage and made the slogan Je Suis Charlie a cri de coeur for proponents of free speech.

But the demands for artistic and intellectual freedom often came with caveats. “We saw people saying they supported free speech, but they almost immediately qualified it,” said Jodie Ginsberg, chief executive of Index on Censorship, a trend she has labelled “but-ism”. “People were quick to say ‘Je suis Charlie’, but in reality many wanted heavy qualification on free speech. Free speech includes the right to offend and insult. What might offend you might not offend other people.”

Index on Censorship will attempt to turn the spotlight on satire this month by hosting its first dedicated comedy fundraiser. As well as raising money, it aims to make people think about “what we mean when we say we believe in free speech”, said Ms Ginsberg. Index on Censorship has supported satirists throughout its 43-year existence and says they continue to be heavily targeted around the world.

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Ms Ginsberg said: “We know that satirists are often the targets of authoritarian regimes and fundamentalists. Satire tends to provoke the most extreme censorship. That’s because it tends to mock the powerful and question ideas people hold dear to their hearts.”

She pointed to the case of Ali Ferzat, the cartoonist whose hands were broken by forces aligned with President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. “Attacks on satirists sadly are not unusual internationally. That’s why it’s imperative we defend the satirist’s right to mock.”

The Index chief pointed to the conviction in March of two Turkish cartoonists accused of insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. They were given a jail sentence which was commuted to a fine.

“The powerful can’t stand to be laughed at,” Ms Ginsberg said. “What was great was in response, a group of international cartoonists do exactly what the President didn’t want which was draw more cartoons looking ridiculous.” Another satirist facing charges is the Malaysian cartoonist Zunar, who fell foul of the country’s sedition act.

Stand up for Satire will be held on 30 July and hosted by Al Murray the Pub Landlord, who recently ran against Ukip’s Nigel Farage in the general election. “It’s great to be able to help Index do their bit in keeping freedom of expression alive in the UK,” he said.


Among the performers is the controversial comedian Frankie Boyle who has talked extensively about free speech. Also on the bill is Shappi Khorsandi, who presented the Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards this year. Her father is a satirist who fled Iran.

Ms Ginsberg said: “We want people to have fun and enjoy it, but also for them to ask themselves: ‘When we say we believe in free speech, what does that actually mean?’”

One of the rising stars on the bill is Doc Brown, whose real name is Ben Bailey Smith. He was recruited for the event by Index patron and actor Steve Coogan.

“I woke up to find an email from [Coogan], and I was really excited,” he said. “I’ve never met the man but obviously I’m a huge fan, particularly Alan Partridge. I was taking screen grabs and sending them to my mates saying: ‘Partridge has been in touch.’”

Coogan knows the comedian’s sister, the author Zadie Smith, and asked if he would help out. “So obviously I was up for it. As well as that, when he showed me the nature of the charity it was something I felt strongly about.”

Brown said of the line-up: “All of us have angles on this. None of us are comics who like to go up there and waste 20 minutes talking about how annoying it is when you run out of bog roll. We’ve all got stuff to say. I like being on bills like this one with big comics. It makes me up my game. You won’t phone it in.”

Frankie Boyle (centre): Boyle’s six-minute performance at the Give It Up for Comic Relief fundraiser in 2013 was cut from the show for being too distasteful (BBC)

He has written new material about politics and race for the gig. “It’s hard to see on my TV appearances as they always cut the hard-hitting stuff out and keep in the silly raps. It’s my own fault as I have that silly side to me. But people who have followed me and seen my solo shows know there’s a bunch of stuff on cultural identity, religion and race and the finer points of human relationships. That’s what I’m really interested in.”

Yet, the comedian added: “I have strong opinions on free speech. Some people use ‘I can say what I want’ to abuse people and provoke anger. I don’t think that is what it’s about. To have freedom of speech is a responsibility as well as a human right. Like with Spider-Man, with great power comes great responsibility.”