Better the devil you know
At the Freemuse conference on freedom of musical expression in Beriut, October 2005, Ali Abu Shadi spoke about his work as the chairman of the central Censorship Department in Egypt.
Responding to Abou Shadi’s message, Ole Reitov suggested that most censors, afraid of taking risks and losing their jobs, tend to overdo the censorship. Abou Shadi said that he had always acted without fear but did admit that he was removed as chief censor because the government wanted someone in the role whom they could manipulate.
Censorship, he admits, can create a lack of freedom, a system. What he wants to see is an open conflict on the ground between the censor and the artist. He wants to create confidence by creating a good relationship with artists. He wants to help artists express themselves openly without infringing the law. He accepts that amendments should possibly be made but says that not only is this a slow process, but if they are amended there is a danger of much more religious censorship. He believes that the present law is a good omen, allowing freedom and maintaining the morality of society at the same time. He finds the laws in Egypt to be flexible and takes advantage of this to benefit the artist. But he added that, dating from the1950’s, these laws are no longer relevant since the society has changed during the past fifty years. He summarized the history of censorship in modern Egypt and said that the censorship department was established in 1947 to protect the interests of the government and protect political regimes in general. It is political plurality, therefore, that means less censorship. Asked about constraints, he said that these reflected the ethics of the country.
At the same time as acting as chief censor Ali Abou Shadi ran a film centre in Egypt.
He pointed out that in Egypt the government keeps the originals of all pieces submitted to the censorship department. He cited a recent film, Barak, which had its last scene, one of Ahmad Zaki shooting at police officers, taken out. Nevertheless, he kept a copy of the film and showed it a film festival with the last scene included. He explains that are different standards depending on the different censorship units. He explained that each ministry and each media unit has its own censorship department apart from the central censorship department. This means that a piece of music, literature or other works might have to face censorship from several institutions at the same time. In this context he cited the Ministry of Interior as a frequent example.
Shadi believes that if amendments to the law go through in Egypt, the result will not be an elimination of censorship. Far fiercer controls will replace the censor under pressure from increasingly militant Islamists. Some speakers were worried that a weak censor would overdo the censorship in order to protect his job but Shadi believed that self-censorship is more likely to lead to unnecessary caution. He believes that the danger is that true democracy will bring with it popular censorship [which will encourage censorship from Islamist sources].
Agreeing with Abou Shadi’s premise, Serene Huleileh noted that in Jordan there was little work for the censor because self-censorship was the rule and this was even worse than real censorship. Yes, agreed Abou Shadi, the problem with self-censorship is that people want to play it safe and social censorship, which involves many law-suits, is much more dangerous than state censorship. The state refers all cases to the public prosecutor, fearing that chaos might reign and that the Islamists will prevail. People are pushed to remove scenes by those whom they fear.
The Syrian film-maker Muhammad Malas congratulated Abou Shadi, agreeing that Egyptian laws were flexible, but asked again whether these laws might be amended. Malas felt that the artist in Egypt was being censored today more than ever before. Abou Shadi reiterated his anxiety that if the laws were amended it would put them into the hands of members of parliament and become much stricter despite the presence of enlightened committees. Islamist extremist groups have a tendency to burn theatres down when they object to the film that is being shown. Controls are in pace even before the film reaches the censor’s office. He said that the artist’s rights must be protected and the extremists must not be allowed to win.
Ali Abou Shadi also deplored the fact that there is no coordination on the issue of censorship among Arab countries and saw problems in the fact that all satellite channels have to undergo self-censorship.
On the panel the argument kept returning to the question, should there be a censor? Abou Shadi sees it like this; “If I see a wall in front of me I don’t want to go into it. I want to go around it. But others say, ‘Let’s go into the wall and see it collapse’. The Berlin Wall lasted many years before it collapsed because it was economy-generated.”
Ali Abou Shadi is the Chairman of the Central Department of Censorship in Egypt and the President of the Egyptian Film Centre. Ali Abou Shadi was Egypt’s top censor from 1996-99.