Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Debate: Satire has a place in traditional media | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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A worker lifts curtains in a theater to reveal a picture of Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef for his comic show “Al-Bernameg” (The Program), in Giza, Cairo, Jan. 15, 2013. (Reuters/Asmaa Waguih)

I once wrote: “Traditional Arab media is the best defense lawyer for our enemies. . . . Whenever Arab media supports an issue, we always end up losers. If any Arab country’s TV or newspapers were to advocate the duty to love [our] mothers, for example, we would announce our maternal hatred after the second news bulletin or editorial.”

Satire has managed to win the hearts of millions of Arabs who believe that it expresses populist concerns and the pain and suffering of ordinary people. We have all seen how satirical media—whether on TV or on social media websites such as Facebook, Twitter or YouTube—played a critical role in Egypt’s January 25 Revolution, when Hosni Mubarak’s regime failed to stand up to the placards raised in Tahrir Square. This is evidenced by the fact that we recall—and indeed, continue to tell—the jokes and puns made at the time. In contrast, I challenge any Arab citizen to remember one sentence Mubarak said in his final speech in office.

What happened on January 25, 2011, was repeated on June 30, 2013, where satire triumphed over the more stolid, conventional media in Egypt. To be fair, some media outlets veered from being professional and objective to outright sarcasm during the recent events in Egypt. However, this should not prevent us from admitting that serious media failed to stand up to the blows it received at the hand of its satirical younger brother. This is simply because confronting modern media with conventional and old-fashioned rhetoric is akin to confronting an F-16 fighter jet with a sword. To avoid being accused of arrogance or megalomania, I, as a journalist and satirist, want to affirm here that any realistic and logical media—whether conventional or satirical—will succeed and win the hearts of the people so long as it avoids propaganda.

On the other hand, I believe that anything that does not conform to norms and guidelines will definitely lead to chaos and eventual collapse. Satirical media is the most prominent new media form. Unless it has a message and objective of being free and professional, it will end up as either a predator that cannot tell friend from foe or a tame circus tiger at its trainer’s beck and call.

When we talk about norms governing satire, we of course do not mean constitutional norms or absolute decrees. Rather, what we mean is professional and ethical norms to which those who claim to speak on behalf of the public and express their woes should conform, whether we are talking about television, radio or print media.

These norms must include respect for other people’s faiths, beliefs and ideologies, regardless how opposite or extreme they might be in the satirist’s view.

Second, there must be an objective for the satire. Sarcasm for sarcasm’s sake is worthless. Sometimes not having a message to deliver pushes some journalists to resort to the easiest choice, to mock the other and turn them into a caricature.

Third, satire should be objective and steer away from provoking or insulting the other. It should also avoid serving personal or partisan interests, making gains from authority or placing partisan interests ahead of the national interest.

Last but not least, in my opinion the most important norm is respect. A satirist must respect the intelligence and feelings of his subject, even while satirizing them. The satirical media industry is like nuclear industry: it can either light up a city or destroy it and wipe the smile off peoples’ faces.

The counterpoint to this article can be read here.