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“When you go after a joker, the joke is on you.” – Bassem Youssef, film subject, Tickling Giants
Join Index on Censorship for a screening of Tickling Giants as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival 6-17 March.
Dubbed, “The Egyptian Jon Stewart,” Bassem Youssef hosts the most popular television programme in the Middle East. In the midst of the Egyptian Arab Spring, Youssef left his job as a heart surgeon to become a full-time comedian, and his show ‘Al-Bernameg’ (The Show) now brings in 30 million viewers per episode. In a country where freedom of speech is becoming increasingly restricted with each regime change, Youssef and his courageous staff of young writers develop creative methods to non-violently challenge abuses of power. Enduring physical threats, protests, and legal action, the team test how far they can take the joke.
Sara Taksler, 2016, Documentary, 111 minutes
Dr Bassem Youssef, the former heart surgeon and Egyptian TV presenter likened to Jon Stewart, has declared he is taking extended time off from journalism, after an anti-semitism and plagiarism row swept through Egypt.
Dr Youssef was named by Time Magazine as one of the “100 most influential people in the world.” He has over two and a half million followers on his Twitter account and his weekly TV show, Al Bernameg, attracts millions. A political satirist and comedian, he is heavily influenced by Stewart’s Daily Show in the US.
Youssef’s self-censorship comes after a very public humiliation. The Cairo Post reports that an article written for publication in last Tuesday’s edition of Al Shoroqu, concerning events in Ukraine was heavily plagiarised a similar article Ben Judah wrote for Politico about the same topic.
The article was entitled “Why Russia No Longer Fears the West,” and while Ben Judah is a recognised global expert on Russia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Youssef is a pop-politics TV presenter with clearly scant knowledge of tensions with Putin.
Youssef tweeted that he had cited Ben Judah’s work at the end of his piece, but that editors had not include this in the final version.
Judah was then targeted by hundreds of anti-semitic messages, including pictures of Nazi symbols.
“Isreal [sic] under my shoes holocaust b***h lol hitler b***h hahahaha if I were hitler I will burn u all,” said one Cairo-based user.
Another from Cairo – “Jews curse of God on Earth.”
Another from Mansoura wrote “I will f**k your family one by one.”
“I made a public statement to lessen the damage on him as I respect his work for freedom of the press” Judah told Index. “Everyone can make mistakes under journalistic stress.” He received no apology from Dr. Youssef, even after the anti-Semitic tweets started arriving.
“Regarding the Twitter rage : I am from a family of Holocaust survivors, so it did not surprise me such hatred of Jews exists.”
Judah believes that the majority of the abusers were “middle class English-speakers in Cairo.”
“The whole experience reveals the scale of racial hate in the Arab world towards Jews,” he added.
In 1945 there were eight hundred thousand Jews living across the Arab world. Today, there are fewer than eight thousand.
Like Christians in the Middle East, who have seen their numbers drop from 15% to 5% in the last hundred years, the last fifty years saw many Jews move to Europe, the US, or Israel. The beginning of the exodus correlates roughly with the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, suggesting that Arabs persecutions of Jews has also been politically motivated.
Judah says he received hundreds of anti-Semitic messages, many of them referencing the state of Israel.
“u re a f****** israeli dog &put ur tongue in ur ass f*** u son of pimp,” was one, another “I want to tell you f*** you Israel: F*** u Israelis and all Jews,” as well as “Israel under my shoes holocaust bitch lol hitler bitch hahahaha if I were hitler I wud burn you all.”
Judah also observed that many of those tweeting abuse had been key players in the Arab Spring.
“Egyptians who were baying for my Zionist blood were not peasants but mostly middle-class English speakers. Many of them were women, the heroes of the Arab spring.”
The anti-Semitism was not uniform, according to Judah “a lot of big Egyptian bloggers did touchingly tweet their shame and apologies to make me feel a bit better”.
With much anticipation, Egyptians huddled around their television sets on Friday night to watch their favourite comedian, Bassem Youssef, make his debut appearance on the Saudi-funded MBC Misr Channel after a three-month absence from the small screen.
Youssef’s fans were not disappointed: They were treated to a full hour of non-stop laughter as the satirist, often compared to US comedian John Stewart, took jibes at the current state of the media and at the Egyptian public’s infatuation with defence minister field marshall Abdel Fattah El Sisi. Youssef cracked jokes about how everything in the country revolves around El Sisi whose name crops up on practically every TV show including cookery and sports programmes.
Youssef opened the show with a pledge not to talk about “sensitive political issues” that had previously caused his satirical show Al Bernameg, The Programme, to be pulled off the air by the management of the privately-owned Egyptian CBC satellite channel. Minutes later, he reversed his decision. “What are we going to talk about?” he asked his studio audience before throwing caution to the wind and starting to poke fun at the Sisi-mania gripping the country. He stopped short however, of taking aim at El Sisi himself, making no secret of the fact that such action would provoke a negative response from the censors.
” It’s better we don’t mention him,” he said as a silhouette- image of the military chief appeared on the screen . “Not out of fear but out of respect,” he sarcastically retorted.
Youssef’s show Al Bernameg was suspended last October following a controversial episode that CBC administrators said had “violated editorial policies and caused discontent among viewers.” In that episode–his first appearance since Islamist president Mohamed Morsi was toppled by military-backed protests in July– Youssef had poked fun at the Egyptian public’s blind idolisation of General El Sisi, widely expected to become the country’s next president. That had been enough to land him in trouble.
Not only was the show pulled off the air, but Youssef was also lambasted mercilessly by pro-military supporters in both the traditional media and social media. The attacks on Youssef did not stop there: Criminal charges were brought against him by angry citizens who accused him of “insulting the military.”
The legal complaints lodged against Youssef in November were not the first time the popular satirist had been indicted. In March 2013, he was investigated by the public prosecutor on a set of charges ranging from “insulting Pakistan” to “spreading atheism” and “insulting Islam and the president.” The accusations against him were triggered by his persistent ridiculing of then-president Mohamed Morsi. In an episode of the show early last year, he appeared on the set wearing a gigantic hat similar to one worn by Morsi when he received an honorary doctorate from a Pakistani university. Youssef’s unabashed lampooning of the former president delighted the former president’s opponents while earning Youssef the wrath of his Islamist supporters.
Youssef was not convicted. After an investigation lasting five-hours, he was released on $2,200 bail and went right back to mocking Morsi.
His indictment triggered an international outcry, raising concerns over regression on the country’s hard won freedom of expression and press freedom. Little did anyone –let alone Youssef himself who later joined the June 30 protests demanding the downfall of the Muslim Brotherhood regime—suspect at the time that those freedoms would be further undermined and eroded by the military-backed regime that would replace Morsi three months later.
Since Morsi’s ouster, restrictions on the press have been even “greater than those imposed by either Morsi or his predecessor, autocrat Hosni Mubarak”, lament press freedom advocates and media analysts. The intimidation and harassment of journalists including increased physical assaults on them by security forces and by ordinary Egyptians supportive of the military, have raised concerns about the safety of journalists working in Egypt and press freedom in the country.
The indictment of 20 journalists – four of them foreign correspondents—has fuelled fears of a widening crackdown on journalists critical of the military-backed government. Eight of the defendants are journalists working with the Al Jazeera network –four of whom languish in prison on charges of “spreading false news and assisting or belonging to a terrorist organization.” Similar charges have been leveled against the sixteen other defendants in the case including Dutch journalist Rena Nejtes who last week, managed to flee the country, escaping arrest.
Sue Turton, one of two British defendants in what has come to be known as the “Al Jazeera case” told CNN on Friday that “the crackdown by the Egyptian authorities was targeting all journalists who do not tow the government line. ” She and fellow British defendant Dominic Kane are safely out of the country unlike Australian award-winning journalist Peter Greste who has been behind bars for six weeks. On Sunday, his parents made an impassioned appeal to Egyptian authorities for his release. Speaking to journalists in a press conference in Cairo, they described the accusations against him as “bizarre” and “ludicrous.” Juris Greste , Peter’s father, insisted his son’s detention was ” unfair and unjustifiable,” and urged prosecutors to release him immediately.
In a worldwide campaign to press for the release of the four Al Jazeera journalists, fellow-journalists from different countries across the globe have expressed solidarity with the defendants. They posted their own pictures on social media networks—with their mouths plastered ” to symbolize the Egyptian regime’s gagging of the press,” one campaigner explained via her Twitter account.
The detention of the Al Jazeera journalists is having a chilling effect on journalists working in Egypt, forcing many local journalists to practice self- censorship for fear of potential government reprisals. Others have fallen silent.
In the current hostile environment , it is not surprising that Youssef too is uncertain if he will be allowed to continue broadcasting his show. Wrapping up Friday’s episode, he asked “Second episode ?” before bursting out laughing. In the country’s repressive climate, no one can predict what might happen next.
After months away from the small screen, TV satirist Bassem Youssef is back on the air but it is uncertain how long he’ll stay. After a four month absence (Youssef’s disappearance coincided with the overthrow of Egypt’s first democratically-elected President by a military coup) he returned to the airwaves last Friday with a new episode of his weekly TV show Al Bernameg (The Programme). The episode sparked a new wave of controversy, reflecting the deepening divisions in Egyptian society.
Just 48 hours after the show was broadcast, the Public Prosecutor ordered an investigation into a legal complaint against Youssef, one of several filed by citizens angered by his mockery of the military chief. Others were upset by jibes he made at the former ruling Islamists. Youssef has been accused of “inciting chaos, insulting the military and being a threat to national security.”
Youssef is no stranger to controversy. He caused a stir when he mocked the now deposed Islamist President Mohamed Morsi on his show, broadcast on the independent channel CBC. At the time, several lawsuits were filed against him by conservative Islamist lawyers who accused him of “insulting Islam and the President” and Youssef consequently faced a probe by the Public Prosecutor. The charges against him were dropped several months later however. President Morsi was careful to distance himself from the legal complaints filed against Youssef, insisting that he “recognised the right to freedom of speech.” While the lawsuits did little to harm Youssef (in fact, they actually contributed to boosting his popularity and improving the ratings of the show), they did damage the image of the ousted President, who was harshly criticised for “intimidating and muzzling the press.” A couple of months before his removal from office, Morsi was accused by critics of “following in the footsteps of authoritarian Hosni Mubarak and of using repressive tactics to silence dissent.”
Now, under the new military-backed interim government, Youssef finds himself in hot water again. This time the TV comedian, known as Egypt’s Jon Stewart, is in trouble for poking fun at leaked comments by the Defence Minister, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, suggesting that the General would “find partners in the local media willing to collaborate to polish the image of the military.” In recent months, Youssef has maintained an objective and neutral position vis a vis the events unfolding in Egypt. In his articles published in the privately-owned Al Shorouk daily, he has expressed concern over the brutal security crackdown to disperse two pro-Morsi sit ins in Cairo on August 14, in which hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters died. But he has also been careful to criticise the attacks on churches (often blamed on Islamists) following the coup.
Friday’s episode, which marked the start of a new season for the show, focused in part on the blind idolisation of al-Sisi by many Egyptians since the coup. The word coup was never once mentioned on the programme. In one scene, Youssef is seen putting his hand over the mouth of one of his assistants in an attempt to silence him as he utters the now-taboo word. In recent weeks, calls have grown louder for the General to run in the country’s next presidential election and a group of adoring fans has even begun collecting signatures for his candidacy.
The fact that Youssef is being prosecuted again after what many Egyptians consider was a “second revolution” signals that the June 30 revolt that ousted the Islamist President has failed to usher in a new era of greater press freedom .The lawsuits serve as a chilling reminder of the dangerous polarisation in the country, which some analysts warn may push it into civil war and chaos. While Youssef did take part in the June 30 protests that toppled Morsi, he has clearly decided not to take sides in this hostile environment. In an article published days before the show, he noted that many Egyptians advocate for free speech and democracy “as long as it is in their favor” but turn against you the minute your opinions differ from theirs. Aware that his episode had ruffled feathers, he sought to ease tensions with a message on Twitter that reminded his viewers, fans and critics alike, that at the end of the day, this is just “another episode in a TV show.”