04/09/2013, 00.00
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Gagging journalists and comedians in the countries of the Arab Spring

The Arab Journalists Union reports continued threats, arrests, investigations and targeted killings against intellectuals, comedians, and reporters. The worst cases are in Islamist-ruled Tunisia and Egypt. Egyptian journalist André Azzam looks at the situation of post-Arab spring media. The Muslim Brotherhood wants to take away Egyptians' sense of humour.

Cairo (AsiaNews) - Governments in countries affected by the Arab spring are trying to gag the free media that emerged following the revolutions of 2011. In recent months, there has been a spate of arrests, acts of intimidation, and death threats against journalists, comedians, writers and intellectuals, in Tunisia, cradle of the revolt movement, and Egypt. The free media point the finger at governments led by parties affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, Ehnnada in Tunisia and the Justice and Freedom Party in Egypt, which after riding the revolutionary wave now use the same methods of censorship as the regimes swept away by people's desire for greater freedom.

Yesterday, the Arab Journalists Union (AJU) met in Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, where it slammed Arab governments that limit freedom of information with legal action that verge on the dictatorial.

The AJU noted that many young reporters working in Tunisia and Egypt have been prosecuted and imprisoned solely for criticising the ruling Islamist political establishment, which has instead given ample leeway to Salafi-controlled networks and television channels.

In Tunisia, after the death of Chokri Belaid, leader of the secularist camp, hundreds of journalists, writers, intellectuals and professionals received arrest warrants or legal complaints.

Groups affiliated with Ennahda have apparently drawn up "death lists" with the names of "overly" critical reporters.

However, the most egregious cases have occurred in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood has targeted the free press, as well as satirical programmes created following Mubarak's fall.

A few days ago, news of the arrest and subsequent release on bail of showman Bassem Youssef was front-page news around the world. His crime was to poke fun at President Mohamed Morsi and the sermons of Salafi imams, who after decades of censorship are ubiquitous on dozens of satellite channels.

Egyptian journalist André Azzam told AsiaNews that unfortunately "Youssef is not the only case of censorship in Egypt. Satire, current affairs programmes and entertainment shows are a breath of fresh air, pure oxygen for Egyptians eager to breathe free after 40 years of dictatorship."

"We must not forget the three main demands of the January 2011 revolution were bread, freedom and social justice," Azzam noted. And "Bassem Youssef is something very special," he added, "because his programme al Bernameg is based solely on comedy, on having fun. With his biting wit, the former cardiologist reflects one aspect of the Egyptian soul, its sense of humour."

Quick with jokes (nokat) and anecdotes, he helps people overcome the most difficult moments of their lives. Like many of his colleagues, "Youssef never attacks people or try to tear them down. He laughs at their failings, provides viewers with a moment of escape whilst helping them look differently at the situation of our country."

For Azzam, Egyptians need such characters to boost their courage in a situation of rising tensions, as evinced by the recent wave of Islamist attacks against Copts that left several dead and scores injured. In addition, as the reporter points out, many other celebrities from the entertainment industry have also faced threats, arrests, trials and murders.

They are Ibrahim Issa, founder of the popular weekly Al-Dustour; Amr Adib, a well-known TV anchorman who created and hosts of El Qahira El Yawm talk show; Wael al Ibrashi, the popular face of  current affairs programme The Truth, on Dream TV, a private channel; Yousri Foda, an investigative journalist and creator of Akhir Kalam (Final Word); Al Hussayny, an Egyptian journalist who was killed in demonstrations against the Brotherhood on 5 December 5, 2012; Rim Magued, a journalist for the weekly Al-Ahram Hebdo; Hala Sarhan, one of the most famous Egyptian television anchorwomen who was forced into exile under the Mubarak and is now, once again, under fire from Islamists'; and Lamia al Hadidi, an archaeologist and historian targeted by Salafis for her steadfast defence of Egypt's cultural heritage. (S.C.)

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