Bad Karma: Censorship vs. Freedom of Expression in Egypt in the Age of Social Networking

Limor Lavie investigates the tension in Egypt between freedom of expression and limits imposed by government censors, as seen in the debate over a controversial movie directed by Khaled Youssef and regulatory laws currently being considered by the Egyptian Parliament.
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From Facebook , “Tightening the noose”
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From Facebook , “Tightening the noose”



“Karma,” a controversial new film by Khaled Youssef, which premiered in Egypt on the Eid al-Fitr holiday, tells a love story about a young Muslim man and a young Coptic woman who marry despite the opposition of those around them. Issues of religious conversion and government corruption form the backdrop to their particular situation.[1] The director is an Egyptian who is known as someone who does not hesitate to touch the raw nerves of Egyptian society. Indeed, some argue that the defiant nature of previous films he directed contributed to the atmosphere that led to the overthrow of President Mubarak in 2011.[2] The film, which is now being shown after being banned by the Egyptian authorities, sparked a wide debate on Egyptian online social networks and in the media regarding the place of censorship in the present era, against a backdrop of regulatory measures focused on the activity of media outlets in the country.

A trailer for the film distributed in May was viewed several million times, and aroused great interest on social media. In addition to users who were interested in the film and wanted to see it, there were quite a few others who called for a boycott, because they oppose marriages between Copts and Muslims, and religious conversion. Others feared that depictions of corruption on the part of senior public officials would provoke undesirable public debate and even protests by those angry that the establishment such acts to occur. For example, Jamal al-Sanbati from Cairo wrote: “Boycott Khaled Yusuf’s ‘Karma,’ which was supported by the Minister of Culture.”[3]

The discourse was not ignored by the authorities. Immediately prior to its scheduled premiere  on Eid al-Fitr, Karma was banned by government censors, despite the fact that they had previously approved it. Cancellation of its screening sparked protests on Egyptian social media, which spread to the parliament and quickly brought about a reversal of the censors’ decision, with the Ministry of Culture reinstating its approval the next day. This step also triggered online responses. For example, Raman Ahmed, a user from Cairo, reacted angrily,  calling the Minister of Culture a “stupid creature” who did not deserve her job, and the director of the film an “animal” and a “dog” whose film “harmed democracy during the al-Sisi period.” Ahmed further called for a boycott of the film and of the Minister of Culture.[4]

Simultaneously, a debate developed over the place of censorship in the era of social networking. Egyptian journalist Khaled Montaser stated that anyone who thinks that censorship can work in the age of the Internet is deluding him or herself. He explained that anyone who thinks that a film, a play or any other work of art can lead to a distorted perception of reality, and therefore prevents its publication on the pretext that they want to protect young people, does not understand that this “distorted reality” is an existing fact, and art is a reflection of reality. In the era of Google and YouTube, Montaser advised leaving the concept of censorship behind.[5]

The discourse on the issue of freedom of expression in the era of online networks did not emerge from a vacuum, but rather from an environment in which the authorities are taking further steps to restrict the media in Egypt. In recent weeks, the Egyptian parliament gave its approval in principle to three new laws which aim to regulate the supervision of the official print and broadcast media. At first glance, these laws prepare the ground for establishing an independent body, separate from the parliament, to oversee these media, but in reality they effectively preserve state control of them, in part because the president will appoint the head of the new national press authority.

Supporters of the law, particularly from the establishment, present it as a promise to ensure freedom of expression. When doing so, they stress that the new law prohibits censorship and establishing media outlets based on religious, gender or ethnic discrimination. In addition, the law prohibits detention without trial for publication offenses, except in cases of incitement to violence, and does not require journalists to reveal their sources.[6] Conversely, the prevailing opinion in the online discourse is that the new laws are “an attack on the press” despite being passed on “Egyptian Journalists Day,” which is marked on June 10. A site supporting journalists’ rights posted: “On Egyptian Journalists Day, al-Sisi assassinates the press and hates the fourth estate,” with a poster reading “tightening the noose” (pictured above.)

The main sections of the law that are subject to public criticism relate to social networks. One of these, known as the “Big Brother section,” states that a social networking account with more than 5000 followers can be blocked or suspended if the account holder publishes false information, slander, incites to illegal activity, or calls for extremism. Journalists and online activists contend that the formulation of the law is intentionally vague to facilitate its use as a basis for persecution and silencing. Another argument against the new laws is that no one from the Journalists Union and/or electronic media contributed to their wording.[7] Some 800 journalists signed a virtual petition against the principled approval of the new laws,[8] and another petition called on the Journalists Union to convene an emergency meeting to protest them.[9] Similar criticism was forthcoming from international organizations in the field of human rights and freedom of the press, including UN organizations.[10]

The timing chosen for passing these laws in parliament is not coincidental. It is clear that the Egyptian establishment is following well-worn patterns of government. Just as Mubarak would impose limits on the public space, to the extent possible, in times of distress, before elections or when public unrest was likely, and then reopen it to let-off steam after the moment passed, the al-Sisi regime is doing likewise. This behavior has been evident on several occasions when there was potential for public outrage, such as the controversial increase in electricity prices and ahead of the June 30 anniversary of the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood regime. Another possible explanation for the timing is the presumption that Egyptians would be distracted by the Ramadan fast, preparations for Eid al-Fitr, and the World Cup – with the expectation of seeing the achievements of the legendary Egyptian footballer Muhammad Salah – which would allow the regime to pass the new laws without the Egyptians noticing.

Egypt is currently feeling the tension between the authoritarian methods used by the regime before the Arab Spring, and the open, unrestrained discourse of social networks, which serve as a platform for voices that support freedom of speech and those who seek to limit it. Sometimes, it seems that the state has the upper hand, as in the case of media and press laws. At the same time, one cannot ignore the fact that in the case of Karma, public pressure succeeded in reversing the state’s decision, to the benefit of those who advocate for freedom of expression.

 


[1] “Haled Yusuf Official Trailer,” Misr Arabia Films, Youtube.com , 6 May 2018. Last accessed 4 July 2018.

[2] “Banned Karma Film Quickly Returns to Cinemas in Egypt With 1st Screening on Eid,” Al-Bawaba , 13 June 2018. Last accessed 4 July 2018; @Nasry , Twitter , 9 September 2013. Last accessed 4 July 2018.

[3] @gamal.elsonbaty1 , Facebook, 12 June 2018.  Last accessed 4 July 2018.

[4] Reman Ahmad , Facebook, 13 June 2018.  Last accessed 4 July 2018.

[5] Khaled Montaser , Facebook, 13 June 2018. Last accessed 4 July 2018. In his comments, Montaser also related to the decision of the top administrative court, in late May 2018, that ordered blocking YouTube for one month because it had in 2012  allowed publication of a video that insulted the prophet Mohammed. This was the final ruling on appeal filed by the national authority responsible for communications in a similar case, claiming that is would be difficult to implement. See: “YouTube to get blocked in Egypt for a month", NewsGram, 27 May 2018. 

[6] Aida Seif Elldawla , Facebook, 13 June 2018.  Last accessed 4 July 2018.

[7] Mekameleen News, Facebook, 13 June 2018. Last accessed 4 July 2018;  @osama.alkarm , Facebook, 11 June 2018.  Last accessed 4 July 2018;  @dakahliaikhwan , Facebook, 11 June 2018.  Last accessed 4 July 2018..

[8] Khaled Elbalshy , Facebook, 23 June 2018.  Last accessed 4 July 2018.

[9] @khaledelbalshy , Twitter, 23 June 2018.  Last accessed 4 July 2018.

[10] Arab Media Freedom Monitor , Facebook, 12 June 2018.  Last accessed 4 July 2018; Ibid. ,  11 June 2018.    Last accessed 4 July 2018.