Mahmoud Othman, AFTE lawyer
Mohamed Abdel Salam, Director, AFTE research unit
For the second time in the career of director Khaled Youssef, security authorities intervene to ban a film of his making, but this time – with respect to the movie “Karma”, Yusuf avoided resorting to justice, preferring to communicate with security authorities. This paper attempts to monitor and analyze the role of security authorities during the past two decades, in terms of their interference in the public show of creative works, specifically cinematic works.
The interference of security authorities in the film industry extends back to the 1930s, when censorship exposed its ugly face by banning the film “Lachin” in 1938. The ban came upon an order by the Undersecretary of the Ministry of the Interior, who believed that the movie touches upon the sovereign and the mode of governance. This marked the beginning of the ministry’s incursion as a censor, although the film was later allowed to show upon an intervention by Talaat Harb. The Wadi El Nil newspaper had published on September 2, 1916 that:
“The Security Directorate began implementing the resolution regarding the control of motion pictures in cinemas, and everything that is now shown is with the approval of the Security Directorate so that it can be considered from now on responsible for the content of the stories presented to the public”
The security authorities’ interventions did not stop for decades, up to the “Karma” film crisis, whose makers was planning to show it in Eid al-Fitr, before being told that security authorities were of a different opinion.
An unknown entity orders the ban of “Karma”
After obtaining all the necessary licenses and permits, and one day before its private show, a Facebook post, dated Monday, 11 June 2018, quoting the censorship authority on works of art, reported the withdrawal of the license for the movie “Karma” directed by Khaled Yucef and produced by the Arab Egyptian Company for Cinematic production. This happened after the filmmakers had obtained a package of permits and licenses starting with their unions, a release for the script, filming and a show permit for 10 years starting from the date of its grant, issued on 30 April 2018, in accordance with Article 11 of the Executive Regulations of Law No. 430 of the year 1955 on the control of works of art, issued by the Council of Ministers Resolution No. 162 of 1993.
The Central Administration for the censorship of Works of Art shall have the right to withdraw the license for public show, in accordance with Article 9 of the law of censorship of works of art, which states:
“The supervisory authority may withdraw, giving reasons, a previously granted permit, at any time should new circumstances; it can grant a re-licensing of the work after the required deletions, additions or amendments have been made without extra fees.”
The law used vague wording, such as “new circumstances” without specifying them, to withdraw the issued license. Nevertheless, the censorship authority did not take into account the minimum legal requirements, which is specifying the reasons for the administrative decision, in accordance with article 9. The authority issued its decision without detailed reasons. In this regard, earlier decisions by the Administrative Court which ruled against rejection letters issued by the censorship authority since they did not include the reasons for the rejection and obliged the administration to give detailed reasons for its decision, including the parts of the movie where the administration believes the film makers had gone beyond the limits of their license.
There are many decisions issued by the administrative court which stipulate that the original principle is freedom of creativity, which can only be curtailed for serous reasons; the administration has the right to advise the artist to modify the script before rejecting it, and when granted the permit, the artist then enjoys a stable legal status which cannot be disputed in such a way as to have financial and legal consequences; the withdrawal of the permit therefore harms the artist and other stakeholders.
Thus, the censorship decision to withdraw the license for “Karma” was devoid of reasons. On the other hand, the filmmakers could not obtain information about the motives of the censorship to make this decision, to the extent that Amr Saad, the main character in the movie, explained that he met with the Minister of Culture, who in turn did not explain any reason for the withdrawal of license for the film.
Later, Youssef published a video on his official Facebook page on Tuesday, 12 June 2018 – the day following the publication of the censorship decision to withdraw the license – confirming that the film will be shown. Youssef, who is the director and writer of the film, then in statements to the press announced the details of his phone conversation with the head of censorship authority to ask about the reasons for the withdrawal of the license. The latter’s response was “a violation of the terms public show”. But then the head of the authority eventually admitted that they were given orders. He said, “I don’t know, but those were the orders.” Youssef explained that sovereign authorities had reviewed the content of the film with him and agreed to it. The situation became more obscure when Youssef evaded answering questions regarding the authority behind the withdrawal of the license, insisting that the reason was someone in an unknown authority who had issued a decision to ban the film.
Films suffering “sovereign” ban
“Karma” was not the first movie by Khaled Youssef, in which sovereign authorities intervened. The censorship authority had previously denied permission for shooting of the film “The President and the Field Marshal” in November 2000. The clear and explicit reasons given by the Director of Arab Film and Video Administration at the Central Administration for Censorship of Artistic Works was the rejection of the manner of the treatment of the film project. After director Khaled Youssef filed a complaint, the authority agreed to permit the shooting of the movie, subject to the approval of both the General and Military Intelligence.
Youssef then appealed to the Administrative Court to cancel the authority’s condition of approval by sovereign authorities. The court ruled in his favor, cancelling the authority’s decision and allowed him to shoot his script “The President and the Field Marshal”. The court’s decision was later confirmed by the High Administrative court. In the case of that movie, Youssef received the decision of the censorship authority through a written official document, which made it easier for him to appeal to the judiciary. The court took 9 years to make its decision in November 2009. This marked a permission to start shooting the movie, which did not happen until the present time.
The State Council’s decision regarding “The President and the Field Marshal” confirmed that sovereign authorities should not intervene as censors of creative works. However, in practice the court decision did not drive the censorship authority to encourage creative artists and refuse interference by security authorities. On the contrary, the censorship has been making ungrounded decisions of rejection of works of art, to make it difficult for artists to appeal its decisions.
The filmmakers may have feared to bear the effort and cost of shooting the film, which can then be denied public show, since there was another permit which the movie had not obtained at the time, which is a permit that is issued after shooting the film and after it is viewed by a review committee at the censorship authority to finally make the decision of its approval or rejection.
In the case of “The Last Days of the City”, a film by Tamer Al-Said, the censorship refused its show in 2016, after agreeing to its shooting, without giving reasons. In 2013, “About the Jews of Egypt” a film by Amir Ramses was equally banned. In an interview with the lawyer of AFTE, Ramses said:
“At the beginning we submitted the script to the censorship authority to obtain a permit for shooting. The authority agreed and we made the film. When we wanted to show the film in the Panorama of European Film week, we presented the film again to the censorship of works of art, and we got a permit for public show of the movie. They did not make any reservations. This permit applies also to showing the movie abroad, but according to the rules, in the case of any new show of the film, we pay fees to obtain the new permit, regardless of the form or purpose of the show (a new show, or export or participation in festivals). But the film is not subjected to a new evaluation. So this phase is accomplished. Then we reached the phase of commercial presentation of the film, which requires some procedures that differ from the public show permit, such as some papers related to the unions should be added to the file of the censorship, such as documents confirming the payment of the fees of the unions of cinema makers, or actors. This does not require a re-evaluation of the film. It is only a new permit like that of participating in a festival. But this time there were many delays in obtaining this permit, giving weak excuses such as the absence of the accountant or supplier or the official in charge of the stamp. The situation remained like this for two weeks, until the night of the show, where the head of the censorship authority then, Mr. Abdul Sattar Fathi, confessed to us that the state and national security authorities – actually used these terms – did not agree to the presentation of the film and withdrew the permit.”
Karma.. the acknowledgment of security as the ultimate censor!
The decision to withdraw the license for “Karma” triggered a flood of solidarity with the filmmakers, the most prominent manifestation of which was the emergency session of the Cinema Committee of the Ministry of Culture, which ended with the committee members submitting their resignation to the Minister of Culture in protest against the film’s ban, demanding a “roadmap to support freedom of filmmakers and preventing the collapse of an industry where we were always on the lead.”
Director Khaled Youssef turned to sovereign bodies, which solved the problem in less than 48 hours, and reauthorized the film. Here, the director dealt with sovereign authorities as the ultimate censor, who has the final say on what can be presented and what should be prevented. The recourse to sovereign authorities weakens the ability of artists to rally against ban decisions and or appeal to judicial authorities.
This situation poses a serious threat to freedom of creativity, where seeking intervention by sovereign authorities is the only solution to show a work of art. What happened with “Karma”, banning it one day before its scheduled show, and then allowing it, confirms that security and sovereign authorities have appointed themselves a de facto censorship authority, in violation of the Egyptian constitution and the laws governing innovation. More likely, pressure exerted by sovereign authorities on cinema will negatively affect the content of cinematic works, as has been the case in dramas, which many critics have recently considered to merely echo voice of security authorities.
There is no doubt that the intervention by security authorities in cinema comes within a larger context, in which artists, regardless of their fields of work, are subject to regulatory restrictions and constraints. The Supreme Council for Media Regulation has established itself as a censor over drama, while military judiciary is prosecuting a group of young actors. There are 8 cases of violations against freedom of creativity identified by AFTE during the first quarter of 2018, in which artistic works have been subjected to deletion of content or ban from public presentation upon decisions by the censor.
AFTE expresses its total refusal of the ban of creative works upon decisions of sovereign authorities, and affirms that the decision to withdraw the license for “Karma” was a violation of the Constitution and the law and the specific executive regulations of the central administration for censorship of works of art.
AFTE also calls for amending article 9 of the Law on Artistic Works, which allows the supervisory authority to withdraw a previously granted license at any time if “new circumstances” occur; the article has to specify those exclusive circumstances. It also has to require a “detailed” explanation of the causes for the decision, meaning that it does not merely mention general reservations, without clarifying their position in the cinematic work, and the offense it bears in particular.