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Court suspension of ‘offensive’ TV show is dangerous

Published in Ahram Online on January 21, 2013

The Administrative Court’s decision that ‘In the Balance’ will be suspended for a month shows a worrying disregard for freedom of opinion, and a dangerous paternalism on the part of judges

Last week, the Administrative Court issued a verdict suspending for one month the programme “In the Balance” which airs on Al-Hafez channel, and banning media figures Atef Abdel-Rashid and Sheikh Abdallah Badr from appearing in the media for a month.

While the court ruling in its reasoning said that the aforementioned programme often broadcasts scenes and discusses issues that are indecent and inappropriate, that is not enough grounds for the court’s decision to suspend the programme.

The ruling also explicitly stated that it based its verdict on general ethics and morals. This is a very troubling precedent, because a judge should not rely on his reading of society’s ethics and morals but on the law and the constitution.

I did not watch the particular episode in which actress Ilham Shahin was slandered. She, along with others, filed a suit to shut down the channel. Nonetheless, I regularly watch Al-Hafez and especially “In the Balance” which is also broadcast on YouTube, and have found that many of its guests freely use very obscene language – although they don’t usually do this in colloquial Egyptian but classical Arabic, especially using graphic and explicit terminology vividly describing sexual acts and organs.

Unlike other chat shows on Egyptian satellite channels, the actual added value of this programme is close to none. The prep team seems only responsible for choosing the guests and inviting them to come to the studio, and the production team’s only job appears to be sending a car to bring the guest to the studio and take them home as soon as the show is over.

And like numerous other satellite channels, Al-Hafez does not invest in producing documentary films or news reports but instead relies on filling prime time hours with such talk shows such as “In the Balance” that contain a lot of shouting and bickering but little information or entertainment.

But despite all these faults and obscenities aired on “In the Balance”, I believe the court’s ruling is a serious assault on the principle of free speech. This is so not only because the ruling sets a precedent that could be used to shut down other programmes and channels, but also because it emanates from a patronising attitude toward the audience that gives the authorities the right to decide on what may or may not offend them.

There is a difference between penalising libel and slander with a fine or imprisonment, for example, and shutting down the platform through which the libel and slander occurred, for example, confiscating a newspaper or suspending a programme. In the first case, the penalty is for an act that actually occurred in the past; in the second, the penalty seeks to prevent a possible infraction in the future.

This is precisely why a decision to close down or suspend a TV channel is dangerous, because in this case the authorities appoint themselves custodians over the values of society. They also grant themselves the right to determine not only the acts that supposedly violated society’s morals and general norms, but also the acts which might occur in the future and which could be deemed offensive and harmful to society.

It is on this logic of guardianship that the court based its verdict to suspend the TV programme in question. What is more, it assumed that seeking tranquillity is the prime motive for watching TV. In its ruling, the Administrative Court explicitly stated that violations aired on “In the Balance” represent “an assault on public tranquillity which every citizen and his family should enjoy while watching television.”

The problem here is this conviction on which the court based its ruling, namely that the main purpose of watching television is to be tranquil. It is easy to assume there are many other reasons for enjoyment on television, including information from news reports, entertainment from interesting or even silly programming, or just to pass time.

The problem with guardianship is that it assumes the audience are incapable of deciding whether a programme will harm them or not; it also assumes that in case of an offensive programme, the audience will be incapable of switching to another channel. And since the spectator is helpless and does not know what’s good for him – according to the court’s rationale – then his family will also be offended. And here, the court also appointed itself as their custodian by stating: “Allowing these obscenities to continue will spread immorality that undermines the family unit and negatively impact the upbringing of children.”

The most harmful aspect of this ruling is its inability to weigh the harm that could befall society by airing an offensive programme, against the possible benefit such a programme might carry. Human history is full of incidences of ideas that people initially rejected which were later discovered to be beneficial or beautiful or sublime. These examples demonstrate that if we gave the authorities power to define and ban anything that could one day offend us, we might end up banning all that is written, published and broadcast because there will always be someone who will say that this book or that programme offended them.

The ruling contains another logic that I believe is just as dangerous as the above. It states: “The court, while deliberating this dispute… is guided by general morals and ethics; anything that is embarrassing seen or heard by one’s wives [sic] and daughters is, in the eyes of the court, sinful and its perpetrator must be penalised irrespective of their rank.”

Setting aside the clearly sexist tone of the ruling that assumes its audience to be a married man with wives and daughters, court verdicts should not be based on general morals and ethics, no matter how sublime, but the letter of the law.

The verdict by the Administrative Court to suspend “In the Balance” is a direct assault on freedom of opinion, which is a principle whose value lies precisely in defending contrarian and controversial opinions.

While it is true that “In the Balance” and Al-Hafez channel, like other programmes and channels, are offensive and contain much that is obscene and inappropriate for the general public, this should never be a reason to ban the programme or shut down the channel because that way society will have lost its right to knowledge and freedom of expression.

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