Thank you for not joking: Brazil comedians challenge ban on ridiculing presidential candidates

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Make no joke about it, Brazil's presidential election is a serious affair, devoid of Jon Stewart's wry jabs, sidesplitting Top 10 lists or the "Saturday Night Live" cast lampooning politicians left and right that characterized the latest U.S. contest.

The reason? Brazilian TV and radio broadcasters are legally forbidden from making fun of candidates ahead of the nation's Oct. 3 election and a possible second-round runoff on Oct. 31.

With the first wave of on-air political ads starting Tuesday, Brazil's comedians and satirists are planning to fight for their right to ridicule with protests in Rio de Janeiro and other cities Sunday.

They call the anti-joking law — which prohibits ridiculing candidates in the three months before elections — a draconian relic of Brazil's dictatorship that threatens free speech and a blight on the reputation of Latin America's largest nation.

"Do you know of any other democracy in the world with rules like this?" said Marcelo Tas, the acerbic host of a weekly TV comedy show that skewers politicians and celebrities alike. "If you want to find a bigger joke, you would have to look to Monty Python."

Proponents say the restrictions keep candidates from being portrayed unfairly, help ensure a level playing field and encourage candor by candidates.

The law has become a hot, trending topic for Brazilian users of Twitter and the focus of newspaper and magazine columns as well as debates at public seminars.

Long before Stewart's "The Daily Show," Tas was working as a comedian-turned-reporter to needle politicians near the end of Brazil's 1964-1985 dictatorship, bluntly calling out corrupt leaders when few others dared.

But 25 years after the return of democracy, his current show, "CQC," is muted during the run-up to the election that will replace center-left President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. The 50-year-old TV host calls it a "very particular Brazilian type of madness."

Making fun of candidates on air ahead of elections is punishable by fines up to $112,000 and a broadcast-license suspension.

Only a few fines have ever been handed out. But Tas and others say that has been sufficient to cause TV and radio stations to self-censor their material during elections.

The law holds that TV and radio programs cannot "use trickery, montages or other features of audio or video in any way to degrade or ridicule a candidate, party or coalition."

Because the Internet is not licensed by the government, it is not covered under the law. But if a TV or radio program were to ridicule a candidate online, a complaint could be judged by the supreme electoral court.

Fernando Neves, a former head of the electoral court, defended the law as fair-minded.

"A broadcaster cannot make jokes that make one candidate look bad," he told the O Globo newspaper recently. "That's the way it is. The law doesn't permit it and I think it has its reason for being."

Columnist Clovis Rossi often uses wit to dissect political candidates in his column in the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo. As a print journalist, he is exempt from the law targeting TV and radio — but he views it as a "ridiculous" measure designed to "permanently castrate the voters' right to information."

"I don't think it is a threat to the freedom of the press; I think it is a threat to the intelligence of the Brazilian people," he said. "I've worked so many years covering Brazilian politics that perhaps I am now anesthetized to it. Perhaps if you're looking at Brazilian reality from a foreigner's point of view, it's a shock."

A recent editorial in O Globo called the law censorship that "would be unthinkable in the most vibrant democracy, the United States."

Without any comic relief in sight, Brazilians are in for weeks of deadpan news coverage of some quirky candidates.

Dilma Rousseff, the governing party candidate who tops all polls, has a lumbering speaking manner and a tough management style that earned her the nickname "Iron Lady."

Her top opponent, Jose Serra, is widely seen by Brazilians as utterly lacking charisma. Despite strong — some would say strained — efforts to be seen like a regular guy, he continues to come off as an awkward, though skilled, technocrat.

Comedian Helio de la Pena, from the popular TV show "Casseta & Planeta," wrote in a recent Folha de S. Paulo column that the law gives "the impression that the candidates are some poor, defenseless victims of jokes."

"Brazilian politicians are protected by absurd and exaggerated legislation," he added. "It's as if the poor things were suffering from bullying practiced by the comedians."

Tas' advice for Brazilian politicians: Follow the path of your American counterparts, including President Barack Obama.

"The growth curve of Obama's popularity grew after he appeared on humor programs," Tas said. "When you allow yourself to be interviewed or confronted with a critical opinion, like on my program, you may take some shots but you can show a more human side that the voters might like.

"Humor is nothing more than the exaggeration of reality. You can make an observation that is a caricature of reality that just may help people think about an issue in another light."

(This version CORRECTS spelling of president's first name as Luiz sted Luis.)