Conviction of right-wing comedian sparks freedom of speech debate

. Apr 13, 2019
danilo gentili comedian freedom of speech Danilo Gentili

Danilo Gentili is a self-proclaimed politically incorrect comedian. The 39-year-old rose to stardom a decade ago as a reporter on “At All Costs”, a weekly show mixing humor with journalism. There, he mastered the art of making politicians look silly and uncomfortable. Upon leaving the show, Mr. Gentili embarked on his own projects, and became notorious for trying (often too hard) to push the envelope of offensive comedy further and further. But his political incorrectness was quickly replaced by rudeness, prejudice, sexism, and, in some cases, blatant racism.

Some of Mr. Gentili’s jokes include making fun of the Holocaust, offering bananas to a black man, calling a black senator “the lady who pours the coffee,” among others. Whenever he was at the receiving end of criticism, the comedian often instructed his legion of followers (17 million on Twitter) to bash his critics on social media.

</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">One of his offensive stunts, however, came back to bite him, as a federal judge <a href="">convicted him to seven months in prison for libel</a> against a congresswoman. The case refers to a public spat between Mr. Gentili and member of Congress Maria do Rosário (the same lawmaker President Jair Bolsonaro one said was &#8220;not worth raping&#8221; because she was &#8220;very ugly&#8221;). </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">After tweeting a series of statements offending Ms. Rosário, the comedian received an out of court notification from her—and filmed himself rubbing the papers on his genitals before mailing it back to her, calling her a &#8220;whore.&#8221; Mr. Gentili evoked his right to freedom of speech, but the judge nevertheless considered him guilty.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Like anything in the current moment of Brazil, the case sparked fury on social media. Generally, those on the left defended the verdict, while their right-wing antagonists called foul play. President Bolsonaro himself expressed his solidarity with the comedian on Twitter, even though he had remained in silence for five days about a brutal Army incident in Rio de Janeiro.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The social media bluster aside, the case deserves an analysis beyond political lines.</span></p> <h2>A threat to freedom of speech</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Criminal conviction is not the right course of action for Mr. Gentili—who champions a crusade to make calling women &#8220;whores&#8221; and black people &#8220;monkeys&#8221; a normal thing. It is worth remembering that we&#8217;re talking about throwing someone in jail for a verbal offense. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">For years, progressive human rights defenders have repudiated this behavior from courts. &#8220;Protecting someone&#8217;s reputation through the criminal system is disproportionate and a threat to freedom of speech,&#8221; says NGO Artigo 19. The organization has <a href="">launched a campaign</a> to remove libel and defamation from the penal code.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">As crass as Mr. Gentili&#8217;s humor is, we all know that moves to make penalties harder and throwing people in jail for minor offenses will always end up punishing the poorest (and overwhelmingly black) sectors of society. The penal system won&#8217;t protect the most vulnerable populations. (On that note, it is significant to observe that Mr. Gentili was criminally convicted after offending a national politician, but has been acquitted when facing less powerful people in court—such as the black man to whom he offered bananas.)</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">That&#8217;s not to say Mr. Gentili shouldn&#8217;t be convicted in civil courts. Calling someone a &#8220;whore,&#8221; and asking her to take a piece of paper and &#8220;shove it up her backside&#8221; could certainly be punished without threatening freedom of speech—with redress for damages, not jail. I believe <a href="">freedom of speech</a> should mean that I can say whatever I want, providing I am prepared to face the consequences—prison, however, shouldn&#8217;t be one of them.

Fausto Salvadori

Fausto Salvadori is a member of Ponte Jornalismo, a website focused on public safety, human rights, and violence-related issues.

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