Filmmakers, performers and musicians in Egypt tread a fine line.
A creative work must not advocate atheism, criticize Muslim, Christian or Jewish beliefs or approve of “sorcery.” It cannot depict the prophets or Muslim caliphs in any way or inaccurately present Quranic verses, prophetic hadith (sayings of the Prophet Mohamed) or other sacred texts, including religious and burial rites. Films, plays and songs should not present social problems in ways that incite despair, class divisions or sectarianism. They must not encourage vice or crime or trigger sympathy with their perpetrators. They cannot show the human body either naked or in ways that contradict social norms or provoke sexual feelings. Failure to maintain “good taste and judgment” while dealing with sexuality or language are punishable. Scenes, gestures or phrases of a homosexual nature are forbidden, and so is the depiction of alcohol, drug abuse and gambling. When tackling history, national figures and events cannot be “distorted” and criticism of countries with which Egypt has friendly relations is not allowed. And naturally, promoting racism is unacceptable.
These are some of the guidelines that continue to govern the work of the board of censors, a body that operates under the Culture Ministry and which is responsible for approving the production and public showing of any creative audio-visual work in Egypt. The guidelines were outlined by the ministry in decree 220/1976 to explicate law 430/1955 on the censorship of audio-visual materials. For decades they have raised much controversy, with numerous artists being fined and rounded up for trial. The language of the guidelines has repeatedly been described as vague and the laws as so complex that they could pretty much be applied to any artwork the censors deem fit.
“Censors of Creativity” attempts to map the context within which artists operate. It was issued last month by the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression(AFTE), an Egyptian group founded in 2006 to defend freedom of expression, and the Copenhagen-based World Forum on Music and Censorship(FREEMUSE).
The 83-page report is unique in its comprehensive analysis of the legal frameworks currently curtailing creative expression, citing various censorship incidents that have occurred over the years. Copies of the report have been shared with the public, the press and relevant institutions, including the Culture Ministry itself. A summary of the report will also be discussed in October during the 20th session of the Human Rights Council, which reviews Egypt’s human rights record.
“The problem,” says Ahmed Ezzat, a lawyer and human rights researcher who has been working on the report alongside two AFTE members, “is that there are many gray areas in the law.”
The board of censors, which must approve scripts of films before production begins, and approve the works again upon their completion, is not even the only body at work here. Religious institutions such as Al-Azhar and the Coptic Orthodox Church also review works they deem relevant to their areas of expertise. National Security officers and the military express unofficial opinions that are also taken into account. Artists who decide to perform in public space, even street festivals such as the monthly “Al-Fan Midan” (Art is a Square), are required to apply for permits from state councils, or risk being shut down by police. Either way they are not protected from possible harassment by bystanders who might disagree with their work.
Ezzat says that issuing permits for performances in public spaces has no legal ground.
“It’s a practice that has become institutionalized,” he says.
Ezzat also describes Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb’s recent decision to ban the commercial drama “Halawet Roh” (Sweetness of Spirit) despite the censorship board approving its screening, as “encouraging the overriding of existing laws,” an act which in itself is punishable by law. The application of laws is clearly selective.
“Jews of Egypt” filmmaker Amir Ramsis is among the artists who provide a testimony in “Censors of Creativity” on their experience with various censors.
As the name suggests, Ramsis’ 2012 documentary attempts to tackle a “sensitive” part in Egypt’s modern history, and hence caught the attention of several parties despite the board of censors’ official approval. To show “Jews of Egypt” in local movie theaters, Ramsis was asked to complete one last step: to obtain a permit from the Film Professions Syndicate. This is, however, purely procedural and involves submitting some additional documentation and paying a fee. The permit was nevertheless delayed for two whole weeks, a third of the time period it was allotted to show at movie theaters. The reason provided by the syndicate for this delay was firstly that the employees responsible for approving the procedures were unavailable. Later, they said that the documents submitted were incomplete. Ramsis, however, testifies that then head of the censorship board, Abdel Sattar Fathy, informed him that it was Homeland Security officers who objected to the film’s screening.
Other laws related to libel, contempt of religions and protecting public morals often come into play as well. Ezzat explains that visual arts exhibitions, for instance, do not fall under the control of the censorship board. Still, security forces and/or the public can shut exhibitions down if they include works with nudity or that deal with the taboo topics of religion, sex or politics. In such cases, as well as those in which films or plays are shown without the censors’ approval, the hosting space might be closed down for between a week to a month, and the equipment may be confiscated by the authorities. Fortunately for art institutions, their programming is perceived as less accessible to the general public and hence they come under the radar less.
The internet is among the few spaces that remain free in Egypt. No existing legislation regulates online content and hence free access becomes the default, explains Ezzat.
Asked about the Interior Ministry’s recent announcement that it is developing a new system to monitor social media websites for security threats, Ezzat added that this has no legal basis. But people will have to take up their rights in court.
Like other reports submitted to the Culture Ministry, “Censors of Creativity” argues against all such constraints. Instead, the main reform it proposes is replacing existing legislation with a clear, consistent and applicable age-rating system.
“After that, the choice should be left to the public,” says Ezzat.
AFTE researchers have not heard back from the ministry. They do not know if their recommendations will be considered by the two new committees tasked with drawing up reform plans for the censorship board. But they are continuing their work, documenting incidents and legally supporting artists called in courts. They are optimistic that the October review might also help boost their efforts in the right direction.