Egypt's TV censors sharpen their knives

Cairo - Egyptian television dramas will soon be subject to review by a panel of religious censors, sparking an outcry by authors who say the move is a threat to their creative freedom and livelihoods.

Information Minister Mamduh al-Beltagi told reporters that he wanted to ensure better quality Egyptian television series, which have been overtaken in popularity by Syrian productions in recent years.

He said that under the new rules, only shows that are "responsible" and "respect the values and traditions of Egyptian society" will be allowed to hit the airwaves.

"The media cannot be transformed into instruments to distill poison under the pretext of artistic licence," he said.

Certain programmes will now be presented to the clerics of Al-Azhar, the world's highest Sunni Islam authority, and the small but powerful Christian church before being broadcast, Beltagi said.

The minister has already axed a television miniseries called A Girl From Shubra, a tale of the relationship between a Christian woman and a Muslim man during the Egyptian struggle for independence in the 1940s.

The ban sparked a deluge of criticism from writers but Beltagi defended the move saying the programme "deals with relations between Christians and Muslims in a way that undermines national unity".

The Coptic Christian church opposes marriage between Christians and Muslims, which often results in conversions of the spouse to Islam, while marriage between a Muslim woman and a Christian man is formally banned under sharia law.

In December, the wife of a Coptic priest who wanted to divorce and convert to Islam set off a storm within the church, which initially said she had been kidnapped and forced to convert.

The allegation caused a deep rift between the religious communities, sparking deadly clashes.

The Coptic church bans divorce and many Christian women circumvent the rule by announcing their conversion to Islam in order to be excommunicated from the church and obtain a legal separation before a civil court.

The new restrictions on public television come in marked contrast to the liberal standards on satellite channels seen in Egypt and have sent a jolt through the writers' community, most of whom sell their productions to public television.

"This is a state of emergency slapped on dramatic creativity," said writer Magdi Tayeb, in a reference to the state of emergency in force in the country since the assassination of president Anwar Sadat by Islamists in 1981.

Successful series writer Osama Okasha expressed his "deep regrets" about the minister's decision.

"They'll invent anything to reassert their power," he said.

Okasha said A Girl From Shubra denounced "negative forces such as religious intolerance and racism and opposed the normalisation of relations with Israel".

"If you want a TV drama to be aseptic, you're courting disaster because no one can impose a vision on an author that he rejects," he said.

"The only judge in this area remains the public - not another party who says he is responsible. At the end of the day, the minister wants viewers to be presented with films that flatter them, that describe a world where everyone is beautiful and everyone is kind - as far as possible from their worries." - Sapa-AFP

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