Politics is not all fun and jokes

Brazilians go to the polls to elect a new president in October. But under a 1997 law, that socialist country forbids TV and radio stations from making fun of candidates in the final three months of the campaign. No late-night TV monologues. No radio DJs doing impersonations or satirical songs.


It is illegal to “use trickery, montages or other features of audio or video in any way to degrade or ridicule a candidate, party or coalition.” Judges have construed the law strictly and punishment runs as high as a $118,000 fine and a licence suspension.

It’s the most destructive form of censorship: censorship of political criticism. And during the most important time, an election campaign when people are paying attention to politics and are in a position to change things.

As with most censorship in the 21st century, it is a stupid law, too. It only applies to television and radio — not to the Internet, including blogs or services like Facebook and Twitter. Of course, if a TV or radio station has a web site, it is still subject to the law.

But sloppy drafting isn’t the point. The point is that, in the mold of South American strongmen of years past, Brazil’s political class is seeking to monopolize political speech for itself, and shut out mere citizens and other “outsiders” to their little club. Those banana republic Brazilians! When will they ever learn from enlightened countries like Canada?

Oh wait, hold that. We censor grassroots political discussion too, and just as stupidly.

Like the Brazilians, we bring in special censorship laws during a political campaign period that we don’t have at other times. And we have one set of rules for the important people in our ruling class and another for mere voters. In Canada, any private citizen who dares to spend $500 or more during an election, but doesn’t want to give it to a party, must register himself with the government. That $500 may cover a few quick minutes of radio ads, or a sliver of a newspaper ad, or a cheap web site. So essentially you need a permit to do anything during a campaign besides going door-to-door.

Anyone who collects money from friends to spend during an election must tell the government who he’s collected from, and how much, and he must hire a financial agent to report it. Anyone who spends more than $5,000 must hire an auditor, too. And no one (or group of people) may spend more than $3,378 in any one riding (yes, that’s actually the law). So forget a TV ad. That would cost more than $3,378 to produce, let alone air.

And finally, even if Canadians register, file, audit, disclose, and limit their conduct as above, they’re still forbidden from advertising at all on election day.

But even as our political parties have ganged up on citizens to shut us out of campaigns, the parties have a pecking order amongst themselves, too. Here’s how: Canadians are allowed to donate a maximum of $1,100 a year to a party. Such a strict limit not only gags citizens (unions and corporations are banned altogether from contributing), it also hamstrings opposition political parties. Incumbent governments don’t really need to buy paid advertising; they make the news every day just by governing. It’s the opposition that needs to raise and spend money to offset the incumbents’ natural advantage. So even the laws the parties have written for themselves favour inertia.

Of course, while politicians have restricted the rights of Canadians who freely choose to donate to a cause they believe in, parties have helped themselves to tens of millions of dollars in government subsidies. How Brazilian. The government will take political donations from taxpayers through force, but will not permit the free giving of political donations.

But, you say, that’s not as bad as banning jokes.

Well, Canada has a no-jokes law, too. Just ask Guy Earle, a Toronto comedian who has been before the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal for three years now because he told off some hecklers who were disrupting his show. Live comedy is supposed to be edgy, and is often rude, especially in a bar. Anyone who dares to sit at the front is asking for a ribbing; anyone who heckles the comedian is positively consenting to be thrashed. Not so under Canadian “human rights” jurisprudence, where unfunny jokes can now summon a comedian before the government Joke-tester General who can mete out fines and order forced apologies.

If a comedian’s jokes about his audience can be prosecuted because they’re offensive, how far away are we to prosecuting political jokesters? We Canadians are laughing at those retrograde Brazilians and their underdeveloped freedoms and their submissive citizenry. And no doubt someone enjoying America’s First Amendment freedoms is laughing at Canadians in just the same way.

Ezra Levant, ezra@ezralevant.com, is a Calgary lawyer and author. His latest book, Ethical Oil: The Case for Canada’s Oilsands, has just been released.

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