Dangerously funny - Amnesty at the fringe – the price of a laugh

Have you heard the one about the dictator who couldn’t take a joke?  The news from North Korea suggests it’s a dangerous place to be funny; where this week a comedian was sent to do ha, ha, hard labour in a coal mine midway through her performance after a ‘slip of the tongue’.

Admittedly, dictators aren’t known for being quick to laugh and fast to forgive – but North Korea’s Kim Jong Un has topped the mirthless charts by ordering comic Lee Choon Hong be shipped off to the Jikdong Youth Coal Mine mid act, without even a chance to say goodbye to her family.

Lee Choon Hong had been ordered by the authorities to entertain the workers of a 150,000-acre farm in Kangwondo Province and was doing her act when she made what was described as a 'sensitive comment'. She now likely faces a six-month period at work in the mine before a decision to release her “might” be taken.

I read about that case just hours before a raft of brave comedians take to the Amnesty stage at the Edinburgh fringe, and it seems an apt time to marvel at the bravery of comedians around the world. Theirs is a pitiless industry, fraught with danger and utterly lacking in mercy. Yet you have to admit, some have it worse than others.

Amnesty’s association with humour dates back to the ‘70s and The Secret Policeman’s Balls - luckily  we have got a long tradition of being supported, not to mention cheered up, by a glowing list of the finest funny people in the business and we’ve been in Edinburgh at the world’s largest arts festival for nearly two decades. If at first the relationship between work to combat grave human rights abuses and rib-tickling comedy seems an unlikely one, there’s a rationale behind the mismatch. Freedom of expression is one of the first things to be clamped down on in repressive societies and comedians understand the importance of being able to say what you want without fear of reprisals more than most.

It’s not just North Korea where wit can be risky- In 2010 at the Fringe Amnesty highlighted the case of Burmese comedian named Zarganar - eventually released after serving part of a 35-year sentence for "causing public alarm" after he had made jokes about the government’s dismal response to a devastating cyclone and generally made a nuisance of himself by criticising the ruling military Junta. His imprisonment typifies the fact that comedians are very often a target for retribution. To an authoritarian government they can be irritatingly popular.

Then just days before the Fringe kicked off last year Abdi Jeylani Malaq, a popular Somali comedian, was shot dead by two men armed with pistols as he entered his home in MogadishuHe was likely killed by al-Shabab, the Islamist armed group, as he had mocked an al-Shabab commander and had received death threats.

We’re endlessly grateful to the likes of Sandi Toksvig, Mark Thomas, Lucy Porter, Nish Kumar, Jason Byrne and Benny Boot who are taking to the stage this weekend for Amnesty’s Secret Comedy Podcast at the Underbelly Bristo Square at 13:20, Thursdays to Sunday – and fear not, no matter how lose their tongues get they’re in danger of nothing worse than a good heckle.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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