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Brazilian law way too serious, comics say

By Luciani Gomes, Special to CNN
  • Comics will protest a law that prohibits making fun of candidates over the air
  • Law is designed to protect politicians from unfair attacks
  • Humorists say law restricts freedom of speech and creativity

(CNN) -- Comedy is being taken too seriously in Brazil, humorists there are saying, in response to a Brazilian law that forbids television and radio broadcasters from making fun of presidential, gubernatorial or congressional candidates in the three months before the election.

Brazil's next elections are in October.

Afraid of huge fines that can reach up to almost 160.000 reais ($90,000), producers and stars of comedy shows say they are having to rethink their election coverage and ignore the names of presidential candidates Dilma Rousseff and Jose Serra, or just be serious about it.

On Sunday, humorists will gather at Copacabana beach, in Rio de Janeiro, to protest the law.

According to the 1997 law, television and radio broadcasters, which operate on government concessions, cannot "use trickery, montages or other features of audio or video in any way to degrade or ridicule a candidate, party or coalition."

The law is not new, but humorists increasingly feel that it limits freedom of speech and that creation is restricted. One reason humorists believe the law will be enforced more stringently than before is that the country's three main comedy shows have been dedicating a lot of time to politics.

No television or radio broadcaster has received a fine this year, but it has happened in previous years, and the companies feel threatened by the possibility of it happening again, since it's a very large fine and the broadcaster can end up getting off the air.

The Supreme Electoral Court says that it is not enforcing the law any stricter than in the past. The law has always been applied in the same manner and the idea that this year it's more is the perception of the humorists, the court said.

The comedians say humor is necessary to generate debate and to get people involved in politics. If there's no humor, people will get bored, they say.

A former minister of the Supreme Electoral Court, Fernando Neves, agreed with the need of a rule to make sure the election coverage will be fair to all candidates in all media.

"I think it's correct that the media cannot be used to favor or harm one or another candidate. They are there to inform," he said.

The rule doesn't prohibit humor during elections and was created only to make sure there won't be excess, he said.

"Casseta e Planeta," a Rede Globo comedy show that's been on air since 1992 and that has imitated and made fun of almost every politician since then, is more than ever avoiding references to any candidate. It was a decision made by the show.

To avoid warnings or fines, comedy around election time is achieved with fake politician characters.

Helio de La Pena, one of the cast members of "Casseta e Planeta," believes there's two ways to look at the controversial rule. It helps democracy by not allowing one politician to be jeopardized, but at the same time it censors the humorists' job.

"It became something like a censorship to the humorists, whose role is to touch the wounds and make jokes with the system," de La Pena said.

Since the law's inception more than a decade ago, humorists made fun of candidates, he said, but "now we cannot talk about any of them."

Rede Bandeirantes' "CQC," a comedy show that started in 2008 and became a huge success in Brazil by following politicians in Brasilia and asking them tough and tricky questions, continues to cover the election and mentions the candidates, but is being careful in what to say or joke about.

Marcelo Tas, the host of the weekly television show, said the show has made some changes. Cartoons that depicted candidates with clown or Pinocchio noses, for example, were taken off air. Tas told CNN it was a preventative decision made by the legal department.

He believes the law can work as a way to intimidate the freedom of speech.

"Broadcast companies see themselves threatened with a fine or even suspension of the public concession and it ends up interfering in the creative process," he said.

For Tas, Brazil is walking backwards in terms of freedom of speech.

"It's like prohibiting cartoonists from working during the World Cup," Tas said.

In a statement, Rede Globo said the broadcast law is one of the initiatives in place that undermine freedom of expression and believes that it will end up being revoked by the electoral officials.

For now, the law and its ramifications is affecting how humorists go about their business and, as exemplified by the gathering on Sunday, it is proving something of a unifying factor for the creatives spirits of comedy.

"It's the first time the humorists will gather for a cause," de La Pena said.