Censorship and persecution of comedians is one indicator of a repressive regime. So why is Australia detaining a comedian on Manus Island? By Tom Ballard.

Satire, free speech and Mehdi Savari

Mehdi Savari on Manus Island.
Mehdi Savari on Manus Island.
Credit: Matthew Abbott

When North Korean comedian Lee Choon Hong had a “slip of the tongue” during a performance in 2013, he was sentenced to an indefinite period of hard labour at the Jikdong Youth Coalmine. Kurdish comedian Mahir Hassan Rashid started performing sketches and plays with fellow arts students in the 1980s, and witnessed his contemporaries being jailed, tortured and disappeared. When Rashid and impersonator Goran Faili later made a satirical film about Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi president sent a team of assassins to kill the entire cast. Faili spent the next four years in hiding and survived a further six assassination attempts. 

In Myanmar, the Moustache Brothers have used slapstick and stand-up to criticise the corrupt military dictatorship for decades. “Our government can perform miracles,” they claim. “David Copperfield can only make a train disappear – our government can bring dead people back to life and get their votes.” In 1996, two of the brothers were arrested and imprisoned after performing for then-detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The group’s leading man, Par Par Lay, died in 2013, allegedly from drinking the prison’s contaminated water.

In Australia, safe, democratic and open, being a comedian is always fine, even if your act contains vulgar and subversive routines. They’ll even let you appear on government-funded television with that stuff. But look outside the Western experience and you’ll find plenty of examples of comedians suffering for their art. The “Egyptian Jon Stewart”, Bassem Youssef, had his beloved TV show Al-Bernameg taken off the air and was arrested for the crime of insulting President Mohamed Morsi. Russian guerilla performance artists Pussy Riot were arrested and charged with “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”. Smash-hit Middle Eastern satire Selfie has ridiculed Daesh and the Sunni/Shiite religious divide: its creators have been declared infidels and received public death threats.

Ivan Aristeguieta is now getting serious traction on the Australian comedy scene, but he got his start years ago in his native Venezuela. “Hugo Chávez was a very easy guy to impersonate,” he says of the then president. “Every comedian had their own way of impersonating Chávez. I had a joke about Chávez being so charismatic that he could have been a great TV superstar. I imagined him as a passionate football commentator and how funny that would have been. I used to do that joke with no problems because it wasn’t too aggressive.”

Slowly, though, Aristeguieta could see the regime was becoming less tolerant of any kind of ridicule. The late-night variety show Radio Rochela, hailed as “the most important comedy show in Venezuela”, had been poking fun at the country’s life and politics on air for 50 years – until the government refused to renew the licence of its home network in 2007. Chávez blamed the station for inciting a coup attempt against his government and labelled it “a threat to the country”. 

Aristeguieta remembers the story of a popular improv group that took an audience member’s suggestion to play out a scene based on the recent death of a high-ranking government official. The group was immediately banned from performing in its home venue, a state-run theatre.

“I get it, the scene was about a person dying. But … he was an arsehole.”

Then Aristeguieta felt the pressure directly: “One day I went to one of my local venues where I would always do my stuff and they told me, ‘Don’t do anything about the government because there’s someone here in the audience and I’ve already been told that if they don’t like it, they can close the bar. So please don’t do your Chávez impersonation – please don’t say anything about Chávez.’ ”

While writing political satire as a columnist in Pakistan, Sami Shah says he should have taken the death threats from religious groups and political parties more seriously. “I thought, ‘They’re just sending emails, they’re just sending letters, they won’t actually kill me. It’s just a bunch of crazies.’ ”

Shortly after he immigrated to Australia, shots were fired at one of Shah’s journalist friends. The man’s driver was killed. The journalist is now living in America on an asylum visa. Another friend was murdered for writing articles about the Taliban.

Shah sighs when I ask him if he thinks he would have met the same fate if he’d stayed. “I don’t know,” he says. “My family think so and some of my friends think so. Who knows?”

Shah regularly performed his stand-up at The Second Floor cafe in Karachi, a groundbreaking venue dedicated to free debate, founded by human rights activist Sabeen Mahmud. He remembers Mahmud dismissing the death threats that inevitably came their way.

“She’d say, ‘Don’t take them seriously. Everyone gets death threats, forget about it.’ And then she died.”

Mahmud was shot four times while driving in her car with her mother. Police officials described the murder as a “direct target killing”.

Western comedians love to moan about receiving nasty tweets and audiences groaning at our jokes, and the fact that political correctness is “ruining comedy”. Our gripes pale in comparison with these instances of actual persecution. Sure, tell your jokes about cot death and rape and Daesh, but I’m sorry, you can’t really be considered “edgy” until performing your material could land you in a labour camp or get you killed.

My gut lurched when I heard there was a stand-up comedian being held on Manus Island. Mehdi Savari is not much older than I am. He had fled Iran, hoping to reach Australia, but his boat was intercepted by the Australian Navy and he was brought to the camp in Papua New Guinea more than three years ago. He’s been languishing there ever since, despite being recognised as a refugee.

When speaking to Mehdi, even through a translator, you can tell just how passionate he is about comedy. He considers his ability to make others laugh a special gift. Mehdi is famous among the men on Manus for the performances he would organise to help keep up some skerrick of morale in such dire circumstances. Today, Mehdi’s mental and physical health has deteriorated to such a point that he can no longer bring himself to perform. His gift is going to waste.  

“We know that our precious freedoms, our freedom of speech, is the very foundation of the nation,” Malcolm Turnbull bellowed as he defended the proposed changes to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. I can only imagine that this might come as surprising news to Mehdi.

I do not believe that comedy can radically change the world. I agree with Sami: “To expect satire to change anything is like asking a Band-Aid to cure cancer.” A joke cannot overthrow a dictator or defeat a militia, but in bleak times, mockery of those in power is vital catharsis. It’s a way for ordinary people to stay human and hold on to truth. If I were living under a brutal theocracy or a corrupt regime, I’d sure as shit be looking for as many giggles as possible. I like to think that I’d use my silly comedy to speak up. I like to think I’d be brave like Mehdi.

Every day, hundreds of comedians across this country spin routines and sketches that mock our sensibilities and religion and politics with no fear of reprisal. We should never forget those who aren’t afforded our freedoms and still take to the stage anyway. And to the free speech fighters out there – some perspective, please. If you want to find victims who have been cruelly silenced by actual “nanny states”, look no further than the prison camps we’re running in the Pacific.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 31, 2017 as "No laughing matter".

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Tom Ballard is a comedian and broadcaster.

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