North Africa, West Asia

One satirist exposes Egypt's lopsided media viewpoint

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Nowadays it’s hard to find any national newspaper, TV channel, radio station, or even website that avowedly criticizes the government or the military.

Ahmed Magdy Youssef
20 November 2013

Almost two months after the eruption of Egypt's January 25, 2011 revolution, an Egyptian cardiac surgeon decided to follow in the footsteps of the Daily Show’s host Jon Stewart by criticizing, sarcastically, the hypocrisy of the nations’ mainstream media outlets in their coverage of Egypt's tectonic events. Inspired by his blood type, Bassem Youssef's “B+ Show” - broadcast first on a YouTube channel before changing its name to Al Bernameg (literally, "The Program") initially presented on ONTV then the CBC television channel - gained popularity exponentially among the different segments of Egyptian society. Two years on and despite Youssef's unprecedented success, his show was recently suspended after the airing of the first episode of its new season, as he "dared" to criticize the military-backed government and Egypt's "national saviour", General Abdel Fattah El Sisi, commander of the armed forces.

On November 1, as many were waiting to watch Al Bernameg on CBC, a TV anchor came on air and started to read a statement issued by the television channel's management, announcing the suspension of Bassem Youssef's show under the pretext that the previous week's episode had “violated an agreement” as well as CBC's “editorial policies”.

Ironically enough, despite the fact that Youssef had been far more cynical and critical of the regime during President Mohamed Morsi's rule - who was deposed on July 3 by the army's generals, and he himself was even briefly arrested earlier this year for insulting Egypt's first democratically elected president - he is having to pay the price this time for haviung the insouciancy ( some might say courage) to tease the military-led government.

In his first show back after a three-month hiatus, Youssef directed his mockery and criticism at almost everyone: the Islamists, notably the Muslim Brotherhood, the media, and the military-backed government. Though he didn't mock General Abdel Fattah El Sisi directly - he took on the cult of personalities surrounding the military chief - but, with the ever-growing wave of popular support for General El Sisi, Youssef's attitude was received by many as “unacceptable” or “an act of rudeness” to be precise.

Former Egyptian MP, Mustafa Bakry, hailed CBC's decision of suspending Youssef's show, claiming that it was "a reaction to the banality and deliberate insult of society's values and figures; notably the military and General Abdel Fattah El Sisi."   

Similarly, the renowned Egyptian actress Ghada Abdel-Razek excoriated Youssef on Twitter by addressing him as a "loser" and accusing him of being jealous of El Sisi's soaring popularity seeing that he managed to "pull the rug from under (Youssef's) feet." Abdel-Razek commented on CBC's controversial decision by saying "God forbid, I'm not gloating."

On the other hand, some other liberal and political figures expressed their anger and frustration, arguing that this entails a severe curtailment of media freedom in Egypt. Taken in this light, Ahmed Maher, the founder of the April 6 Youth Movement, condemned the-then private television channel's decision by describing the atmosphere nowadays as "worse than it was during Mubarak's rule." "They can't tolerate criticism. This is media freedom under the new military regime. The military spokesman must have talked to the channel's CEO," Maher added on his Twitter account.

Similarly, the former Vice President of Foreign Affairs, Mohamed El Baradei, wrote in his official Twitter account that, "Freedom of expression is the mother of freedoms. If only limited to those we agree with, then it is a hollow slogan." "Courage is in defending it (freedom of expression), not in cracking down on it. Respect and appreciation to Bassem Youssef," ElBaradei added.

By the same token, the Tamarod Movement showed solidarity with Egypt's Jon Stewart. Mahmoud Badr, head of the movement behind the June 30 campaign, wrote in his Facebook account that, “if you banned Bassem’s show on TV, how are you going to stop him on YouTube. He can do an episode on the street, and we will watch him." "With Bassem Youssef, with free media.”

It's patently obvious that Egyptian media is heading down a perilous path after the "popular" ousting of former Islamist President Mohamed Morsi on July 3. Since then, the arrest of dozens of journalists and the shutting down of many Islamist-run television stations has became a pattern in Egypt. Almost all state-run and private media outlets are adopting a "military-backed" viewpoint. Nowadays it’s hard to find any national newspaper, TV channel, radio station, or even website that avowedly criticizes the government or the military. It might be true that Egypt's top TV satirist was pulled off air because of so-called 'self-censorship', where some media institutions resorted to this tactic to avoid direct confrontation with the military-led government, but we cannot totally rule out the possibility of state interference, especially under Egypt's current military dictatorship, which is very willing to relinquish all media freedoms and freedom of expression and speech to protect its’ own "national security". 

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