Brazil's Political Satire Ban Irks Comedians

In Brazil, broadcasters are barred by law from ridiculing any candidate in the run-up to an election. Advocates say the restrictions prevent unfair portrayals of the candidates, while critics say the ban threatens free speech. Over the weekend, a group of Brazilian humorists and their supporters held a protest rally. NPR's Robert Siegel talks to Jonathan Wheatley, Brazil correspondent for the Financial Times.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Here's a dangerous joke: Two Brazilian presidential candidates are walking down the street. Dilma Roussef, the candidate of the governing party turns to Jose Serra, her main opponent, and she says...

(Soundbite of buzzer)

SIEGEL: I will not finish that joke out of deference to Brazilian election law. In the run-up to an election, Brazilian broadcasters are barred by law from using some video and audio techniques to degrade or ridicule any candidate, party or coalition.

That ban on satire led to a protest on Sunday by some Brazilian humorists, and now for more on this ban, we turn to Jonathan Wheatley in Sao Paulo, where he is Brazil correspondent for the Financial Times.

What does this law ban, and what's the point of it?

Mr. JONATHAN WHEATLEY (Brazil Correspondent, Financial Times): The point is it actually, it sounds like a joke in itself, but it does actually have a serious point. It was introduced in '97, along with this blanket television and radio election propaganda that Brazilians have to sit through, four chunks of 50 minutes every day for the five weeks coming up to the elections.

They introduced this law actually to stop rival candidates poking fun at each other, making each other look ridiculous, but it doesn't just apply to election broadcasts. It all applies to all broadcasting. So TV comics are finding themselves curtailed by it, and they're up in arms.

SIEGEL: And is there a robust Brazilian tradition of TV comics making fun of politicians?

Mr. WHEATLEY: Absolutely. Well, first of all there is, going back quite a long way, and there's some very good quality and imaginative television comedy that relies on Brazilian politicians for its raw material.

But over the past few years, basically since this law came in, a couple of new programs have come up that make I mean, their stock in trade is to use the kind of techniques that this law outlaws.

So suddenly, the stuff that they do, which is very inventive and funny, it may not be hugely original but very well done, they're suddenly finding that it's outlawed, and they have to roll back from it.

SIEGEL: Now, as I understand it, a broadcaster could be fined for violating this ban, but that doesn't happen so much as broadcasters simply comply with it and then self-censor.

Mr. WHEATLEY: Well, it seems that what's happening is yeah, I mean, Brazilian law, sometimes the law moves quite slowly, but it tends to end up being applied. And the fines are quite severe, and they can be doubled at repeat offenses.

So these guys are not taking the risk. They're - just, you know, a bit of self-censorship, exactly. They're pulling back.

SIEGEL: What sort of arguments were made at the protest rally?

Mr. WHEATLEY: Ah, you know, they were all walking around with T-shirts with corks in their mouths, saying that this is the worst kind of censorship since the military dictatorship. And I mean, they've got a point. They're actually being stopped from doing what is very obviously humor.

There's no kind of ban on poking fun at politicians at any other time of year. And they're used to doing it, and they're very good at it. You can see the reason for the law. You can see how these kind of techniques might be used unscrupulously. And, you know, it's five weeks in t year.

But as one of the humorists said there, it's like banning us from talking about football during the World Cup. I mean, this is exactly the time of year when we have to be poking fun at politicians, and it's precisely now we can't do it.

SIEGEL: But just to be clear, if a Brazilian newspaper columnist or an editorial cartoonist in a newspaper wrote about or drew a politician with a nose getting longer and longer like Pinocchio because he or she was telling a lie, that wouldn't violate any ban.

Mr. WHEATLEY: No, it wouldn't. I mean, the law specifically refers to audio and video techniques. So no, pen and ink don't count.

SIEGEL: Well, Jonathan Wheatley, how much longer does the ban go? When actually is the election season?

Mr. WHEATLEY: The election - well, the first round of the presidential election, and it looks like there will only be one round, is on October the 3rd, which is 40 days from now, so another, just under six weeks.

SIEGEL: Jonathan Wheatley in Sao Paulo, where he is Brazil correspondent for the Financial Times. Thanks.

Mr. WHEATLEY: Thank you very much.

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