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Bassem Youssef battles Egypt's censors

Egyptian TV stations have sidelined anti-coup voices since the military takeover in July.

Last updated: 24 Nov 2013 10:31
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Bassem Youssef's programme "El-Bernameg" was suspended after the first episode of the season aired [AP]

Cairo, Egypt - Egypt's most famous TV satirist has been forced off-air, just one of several outspoken television personalities who have been sidelined since President Mohamed Morsi was deposed by the military on July 3.

In his satire programme "El-Bernameg", Bassem Youssef depicted Egypt's army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as the true ruler of Egypt - instead of interim civilian President Adly Mansour; mocked the general's popularity, and poked fun at what he sees as the lack of balance and professionalism in the local media.

In a song composed about the June 30 protests, Youssef said, "If you say your opinion, you're a terrorist and you're beaten… You're Muslim Brotherhood, an agent, a coward and you're supported by the Americans."

Youssef's show was suspended earlier this month after only one episode of the new season aired. "I personally believe that this is a preemptive measure to prevent Bassem from using the show to criticise the symbols of the new regime because they know Bassem is out of control," Muntasser al-Zayat, a lawyer representing Youssef, told Al Jazeera.

Anti-coup protests go online in Egypt

The private Egyptian TV station CBC said in a statement, minutes before the second episode was scheduled to air, that Youssef insisted on violating the channel's editorial policies and breached some terms of his contract, after many angry reactions following his first show. The incident led Al-Bernameg's production company to terminate its contract with CBC on November 19.

CBC had issued an earlier statement distancing itself from Youssef's show and stressing that it supports "the general national sentiment and the will of the Egyptian people".

Leaks from the pre-recorded second episode indicate that Youssef was going to reject the statement and criticise CBC.

Mohamed Khalaf, the director of the show, refused to comment to Al Jazeera to avoid breaching the non-disclosure agreement signed with CBC. The show's production team issued a statement denying that they breached any terms of their contract or that the show's content violated "professional or legal standards". The statement added that the team was surprised to know that El Bernameg had been pulled off the air without any warning.

Zayat explained that the contract initially gave CBC the right to voice any remarks in its editorial content. However, after Youssef was interrogated over allegations of insulting Islam and then-President Morsi in March, the contract was amended - on the channel's request - to put full responsibility on Youssef for the editorial content. 

"Shows were not taken off-air under the reign of the Muslim Brotherhood… It shouldn't happen now," said Amany Fahmy, media professor at Cairo University. "Gagging the people is never a solution. Everyone has the right to speak their mind."

Ahmed Maher, the general coordinator of the April 6 youth movement, agreed, noting that "the last episode was nothing compared to how far Youssef went when mocking Morsi while he was in power". 

Most Egyptian media have supported the interim regime and criticised the Muslim Brotherhood. On July 3, security forces shut down Islamist-run channels that supported Morsi and the Brotherhood and lobbied against his removal, including al-Nas, al-Hafez and Misr 25. Police arrested and temporarily held some of their staff as well.

Not an isolated case

In the beginning of his show, Youssef referred to prominent presenter Yousri Fouda, whose talk show "Akher Kalaam" ("The Last Word") has been off-air since July. "Where are you Yousri? How come I came back on air and he hasn't?" asked Youssef.

Days after Youssef's show was suspended, it was announced that Fouda's show would be back on air by November 20. In an interview Fouda gave recently to a local independent daily newspaper, he said the show was not running because he was receiving medical treatment and physical therapy following an accident he had a few months ago. Fouda criticised the privately owned channel ONTV, which airs his show, for describing the Muslim Brotherhood as "terrorists".

The problem with the current regime is that it refuses to accept a third voice that is against both the Muslim Brotherhood and the violations and crimes committed by the current regime.

-Ahmed Maher, activst

However, he added that ONTV "is resetting its compass with all transparency towards the professionalism and transparency that the viewer has become accustomed to".

Another prominent talk-show host whose programme has been off-air since the coup is Reem Maged, presenter of "Baladna Bel Masry" ("Our Country").

In July, Maged - who is very critical of the Brotherhood - chanted "down with the military rule" as she was being interviewed for another show titled "We are sorry, Mr President".

Maged could not be reached for comment, but she wrote on her Twitter account, "I haven't been suspended or prevented from working, but sometimes remaining silent is more truthful and I prefer to remain silent until further notice".

Other public figures have been noticeably absent from TV shows after having labelled the July takeover a "military coup" instead of a "revolution", and for warning against the dangers of military rule. For instance, in the past four months prominent liberal political analyst Amr Hamzawy disappeared from local talk shows where he had been a regular guest.

"I'm not refraining from TV appearances, but the media space provided to me and others who defend freedom and human rights has narrowed a great deal," he wrote on Twitter.

Hamzawy, who was strongly critical of Morsi, was accused by local media of being a Morsi supporter and a Western agent after he described the July overthrow as a "soft military coup" and criticised the interim government.

Self-censorship?

Publisher Hisham Kassem says the media often self-censors, as opposed to being subject to interference from the government. Many privately owned channels that launched following the January 25, 2011 uprising are owned by prominent businessmen who used to work closely with ousted President Hosni Mubarak's regime.

These businessmen - like Mohamed al-Amin, one of CBC's owners - have always been against Morsi and Islamist groups, even when they were in power, according to Kassem. "They've always been big critics of Morsi even before Sisi came into the picture… they're just continuing this policy," he said.

During a talk show on his channel CBC, Amin denied that he had been pressured by the government to stop Youssef's show. In fact, he claimed he was asked to put the show back on air, but refused due to his personal convictions and other contractual and financial issues. Amin said he planned to take legal action against Youssef's production company for terminating the contract, and anticipated a legal battle between Youssef and CBC.

Maher blamed the government for the cancellation of shows like Youssef's, saying that "it controlled the local media… and brought the country back to a police state".

At the end of his show, Youssef questioned whether the new regime and state institutions could take a joke. Maher's response? "Apparently not."

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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