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13 May 2011

It’s all fun and games until someone gets tortured

We laugh at Ramzan Kadyrov just as we laughed at Gaddafi – until he started killing his own people.

By Duncan Robinson

Dictators and autocrats are funny. Their mixture of vanity and hubris is a fertile ground for comedy. Even Hitler can be reduced to an absurd figure, dancing with an inflatable globe. Comedy is tragedy plus timing, and dictators certainly create an abundance of the former.

At the same time, laughter is a weapon. When the former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu gave a speech and heard mocking cheers, rather than wails of excitement, he knew the game was up. When a repressed population no longer finds a tyrannical leader fearsome, it is a breakthrough; but when the west thinks of a dictator primarily as a joke rather than a threat, it is a problem.

There is a clear danger in allowing dictators to become jokes in the eyes of the west. Prior to the Arab spring, Colonel Gaddafi’s incessant crimes against his own people were ignored in favour of colourful descriptions of his latest outrageous statement or choice of attire. It was only when the “eccentric” Gaddafi threatened to massacre his own citizens that the west realised once more that Gaddafi was not a benign jester.

Kim Jong-il’s ludicrous claims – such as his round of 34 on Pyongyang’s 7,700-yard championship golf course – are frequently remarked on, while his crimes are sometimes a footnote.

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The latest short, brutal autocrat to mask his repugnant regime beneath a layer of amusing absurdity is Ramzan Kadyrov, the warlord who has turned Chechnya into his personal fiefdom through a mixture of human rights abuses, torture and murder.

The Chechen leader recently organised a football match featuring, among others, Diego Maradona, Luis Figo and Franco Baresi. It was clearly a propaganda exercise – and it worked. The photo above made it onto the back page of the Times.

The Guardian, meanwhile, posted an amused report from the match, with Kadyrov’s “gruesome human rights abuses” not mentioned until the fifth paragraph, and even then only in passing. Indeed, from the start of March until today, the Guardian‘s only other story solely about Chechnya was another kickabout organised by Kadyrov – this time against an all-star team from Brazil.

Dictators should be laughed at, but when the media start to report predominantly on a regime’s absurdities rather than its crimes, it plays into the hands of figures such as Gaddafi, Kadyrov and Kim – all of whom want the west to talk about anything except their crimes.

Satire has a place for undermining tyrants, but if the only reports that emerge from hellish countries such as Chechnya or North Korea are amusing pen portraits of their weirdo leaders then we forget about the boot pressed firmly on the neck of their citizens. That’s not comedy, that’s tragedy.