UNIVERSITY OF ARKANSAS HISTORIAN FINDS FAME, CENSORSHIP ON EGYPTIAN TELEVISION
WASHINGTON DC — With afternoon lineups of Jerry Springer and Sally Jessy Raphael, American audiences may have difficulty conceiving that in some areas of the world subtlety is the key ingredient to TV talk shows.
But a University of Arkansas researcher says that even in Egypt - the "Hollywood of the Arab world" - talk shows must maintain a delicate equilibrium between pleasing the viewers and appeasing the censors if they wish to stay on the air.
With our First Amendment rights, Americans are quick to denounce any use of censorship, said UA historian Dr. Joel Gordon. But in Egypt, television and radio programs are working around government sanctions to deliver information about social issues to the general public.
"American audiences tend to believe that if a show is censored, it’s not worth watching," Gordon said. "But Egyptian programming is finding ways to address controversial topics without offending the censors."
On Sunday, Nov. 21, Gordon will participate in a panel discussion entitled Talk Radio/TV, the State, and Images of Community in Egypt. As part of the 33rd annual Middle Eastern Studies Association meeting, this panel will address the broadcast media’s balancing act between popular opinion and government control in Egypt.
Despite certain prohibitions, Egypt maintains one of the more lenient censorship programs in the Middle East. This is partly due to the Egyptian government’s own role in the foundation of broadcast media throughout their region.
According to Gordon, broadcast entertainment became widely dispersed through Egypt in the 1950s after a military coup overthrew the old constitutional monarchy. Military revolutionaries carried Egyptian radio throughout Africa and Asia, spreading the word of national liberation and anti-colonial triumph.
Ironically, said Gordon, many of those revolutionaries are now high-ranking officials who control the content of television and radio programming. Those who once relied on popular opinion to carry them to power now try to engineer opinion to keep them on top.
"There’s an effort on the part of Egyptian government to use the media to impose certain opinions, but sometimes that backfires," said Gordon. "You can write a script with an obvious hero and villain, but the viewer still decides whom he wants to root for. The power of interpretation always belongs to the audience, and that’s what makes this type of broadcast media so dangerous."
Compared to dramas and sitcoms, talk shows represent an even greater threat to government control. Rather than relying on a script, these programs record the lives and opinions of real people, which lends each show an element of unpredictability.
An additional threat stems from the immense popularity of these programs - the effects of which Gordon has experienced first-hand. Approached by a camera crew on the streets of Cairo, Gordon had the opportunity to participate in a television show called "Words of Gold."
"I was walking with my two-year-old son when the host of the show approached us. Our actual television appearance lasted all of five minutes, but I was shocked at the impact and interest it created. For six months afterward, we were the toast of Cairo. People recognized me on the street, came up and kissed my son and started a conversation," he said.
The experience gave Gordon an opportunity to examine the methods by which broadcast media shapes popular opinion. After viewing the entire "Words of Gold" episode, Gordon was able to analyze his placement in the program and the way in which he had been characterized.
"They portrayed me as the good foreigner," he concluded. "I came across as a person who comes from the West but who speaks their language, knows their customs, understands their culture and appreciates it."
Despite government uneasiness, "Words of Gold" uses the talk show format to its advantage. The first portion of the program - in which real people are approached and interviewed - acts as an introduction to the more serious issues, addressed later in each episode. The show uses personal interviews to draw viewers in before turning to discuss social issues such as poverty, child abuse and hunger.
According to Gordon, the show has escaped cancellation because it follows two important rules. First, it presents controversial issues in a palliative manner. Second, it addresses social problems without assigning blame to the government.
"The contents of a show like 'Words of Gold’ may seem tame to an American audience. We’re used to ferreting out corruption and assigning blame," said Gordon. "But the show is working through government constraints to perform a vital function - opening people’s eyes to the social conditions surrounding them. It may have to charm and cajole people into tuning in at the beginning, but more of those people stay to watch the end."
The rigor of these government constraints must be taken seriously as well, especially as broadcasts gain worldwide distribution through satellite networks. Government censors are becoming increasingly concerned about the image that they project to the rest of the world.
In fact, a more recent program launched by the "Words of Gold" host, called "Who’s Responsible," was yanked from the air when it suggested that government officials and policies might be culpable for Egypt’s social problems.
While television in the United States serves educational and entertainment purposes, Gordon suspects that programming is used very differently in the Middle East.
"The question to ask is whether the media is being used as a pressure valve to release social tensions in a non-violent way," he said. "It’s commonly known that television can provide a catharsis for people without provoking them to action."
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