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John Vlismas is saying freedom of speech is under grave threat

17 March 2017 - 21:07 By Yolisa Mkele

In this day and age, it's easier to offend someone than it is to find cocaine at Tony Montana's house. The ease with which one can offend people and the inevitable social media palaver that follows has led many to toy with the idea of limiting free speech.

In so doing they've inspired the theme for this year's Comics Choice Awards, Freedom of Funny.

"Each year we try to gauge the zeitgeist and then create the theme of the awards around it. Right now freedom, especially freedom of speech, is a big issue," says veteran comedian John Vlismas, one of the organisers.

Vlismas believes social media is a symptom rather than the cause of our proclivity to sensitivity and that comedians are entitled to needle societal soft spots.

"I don't think there is a line to cross in comedy because it is art.


"You can't compare someone like Penny Sparrow to Pieter-Dirk Uys, who may use the K word, but only in a specific context and for a specific reason.

"I think people are too sensitive, but that is also because they are gatvol."

The proposed Hate Speech Bill is a particular threat to him and to comedians in general because they use satire to offend.

"I am entirely against the idea of hate speech, but the vague wording of the bill opens the door for abuse by powerful people.

"It's difficult for me to say that I would keep to the law as it is. I don't come from a background that's been perpetually 'hated on'.

"But I do think any society that has jailed people for things they've said tends to have a poor human rights track record."

While you can sympathise with those who wade through torrents of filth every day on social media, you can't help wondering whether state intervention is the best way to deal with the issue.

Vlismas and company are hoping to remind people that they should jealously guard their Freedom of Funny because they'll miss it when it's gone.

The first event in the lead-up to the Comic's Choice Awards will take place on May 28 at the Soweto Theatre.

• This article was originally published in The Times.