Censorship chills Arab Spring

Tunisia, Egypt players navigate fundamentalist politics

ROME — As the Arab Spring countries shift from dictatorship toward more complex political scenarios, there are strong signals that hardline Islamic censorship could impact entertainment industries in Tunisia and Egypt, the nations most swept up by revolution.

Nabil Karoui, owner of Tunis-based satcaster Nessma TV, was fined about $1,700 on May 3 for airing Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis,” which includes a scene depicting Allah, whose portrayal is forbidden by Islam. The ruling, which condemned Karoui for “broadcasting a film that disturbs public order and threatens proper morals” followed a long legal battle in a case widely seen as a landmark test of freedom of expression in the country that triggered the Arab Spring.

In October 2011, days after “Persepolis” aired on Nessma on the eve of Tunisia’s first democratic elections, about 150 Muslim radicals torched Karoui’s house with firebombs. After briefly fleeing to France, he and his and his family now live protected by bodyguards. Yet, in an interview with the BBC, Karoui struck an upbeat note, saying that, despite the trial, freedom of speech in Tunisia has improved. “We can talk, we can criticize the government, we can film the people who attack us and sue them. Of course, sometimes we win, and sometimes we lose,” he said.

Meanwhile, in Egypt, which will hold its first democratic election on May 23, many were alarmed late last month when a court convicted the country’s king of comedy, Adel Imam, to a three-month jail sentence for “insulting Islam.” Adel, who has not been incarcerated, has appealed. The case named laffers such as “The Terrorist,” in which Imam plays a fundamentalist who firebombs videostores offering blasphemous films and attacks Western tourists, but eventually questions his beliefs.

And conservative Islamists in Egypt’s parliament are reportedly pushing for a cinema censorship law calling for cuts in Egyptian films of all scenes showing physical affection, including the kisses and hugs that are a constant in vintage local classics, which are still a major TV staple on state-owned Egyptian Television Network.

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