Better distribution can defeat censorship

There is a good piece by Muhammad Khawly on film censorship up at al-Akhbar:

Cairo – “Early in the game, the Muslim Brotherhood has shown their true colors,” wrote art and cinema supporters on social networking sites in Egypt.

This statement and others like it were made in response to the authorities’ decision to withdraw the movie Wahed Sahih (A whole one) from Egyptian theaters.

“The Egyptian Board of Censors has said they intend to reevaluate the movie in order to delete some scenes and remove language that “deviates from public morality,” according to Sayed Khattab, the head of the board.

Khattab said that he plans to “form a committee to watch the movie a second time, a week after its release...because I received angry feedback on the expressions uttered by actress Basma [Hassan] in the movie.”

Of course the fact that Islamists are on the rise makes many worried about moral censorship. But that is only part of the picture. First of all, under Mubarak, censorship was widespread and often religiously-motivated. At least there will be (once military censorship is removed from the media) much less political censorship, hopefully, in the future of Egypt. That moral censorship — against irreverent treatment of religious matters, sexuality or foul language — will remain is actually largely more of the same, even if you had occasional waves of relative tolerance (often followed by a hardline to outflank conservatives) on this issue.  

To me, censorship is only a small part of the problem, and one that has a relatively obvious solution: better distribution. Lack of good distribution channels seems to me a bigger problem than censorship. It's virtually impossible to buy many movies — new or old — in Egypt because they do not exist on DVD and there are few online sources of digital media (particularly legal ones that could remunerate the film's creators). Movies are screened in theaters and then can often disappear forever. 

Digital distribution in particular could be one way to circumvent censorship, by creating a censored version and an "uncut" one available online (and thus circumventing national-level censorship). Even if it will then be accessible to a sub-section of the population initially, at least it will be out there. I cannot count the number of times I was frustrated by wanting to obtain (and pay for) a copy of a film I missed in the theaters. At least, it would be a good insurance policy against the ongoing battle with state censors.

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.