Jul 23 2009

No Laughing Matter to Joke about our Political Betters

Talk about a guy who can’t take a joke. It is now against the law to make a joke about Pakistani President Asif Zardari in an email, blog or text message. We may laugh about this in Canada, but due to Canadian law, we’re not so far from this kind of stupidity and infringement on freedom of speech as you might think.

Getting back to Pakistan’s new law for the moment, violations can get you a 14-year stint in the clink. Since I don’t live in Pakistan and have no plans to visit, I figure it’s safe for me to at least repeat my favorite zinger first reported in the Digital Journal:

“Robber: “Give me all your money!” Zardari: “Don’t you know who I am? I am Asif Ali Zardari.” Robber: “OK. Give me all my money!”

Seriously, a country that six weeks ago looked to be on the verge of being hijacked by the Taliban and remains a hotbed of terrorism and violence doesn’t have better priorities for police resources?

But Canadians can’t get smug over this. Fact is, we’ve got our own gag laws already in place when it comes to poking fun at our political leaders. Canadian defamation legislation hasn’t changed that much since, well, before Confederation. That’s why there are no Canadian versions of John Stewart or Stephen Colbert. Rebecca Addelman explained in the Walrus in The Last Laugh:

When This Hour Has 22 Minutes comedian Mary Walsh told Preston Manning that his speech was “more edifying in the original German,” the Reform Party threatened to sue. Had they followed through, it would have been up to Walsh and her producers to prove what they implied was true—that Preston Manning was a fascist. Of course, we all know it was a joke and not all jokes are true. But when a joke damages someone’s reputation, then it’s no longer funny—it’s libellous.

Since TV producers are generally working with smaller budgets than their American counterparts, even the hint of a lawsuit is to be avoided at all costs. So the script writers for Canadian comedies take the easy road: self-censorship.

Pakistan’s new law would be beyond the pale here, so we can laugh at it. But as is often the case, the joke just isn’t as funny in Canada.

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