Bassem Youssef's fight for free speech wins cheers at AMF

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Egypt’s Bassem Youssef, the TV host called to court for poking fun at President Mursi, was applauded at this week's Arab Media Forum (AMF) after making a rousing argument for free speech.

The 39-year-old, who has been the target of lawsuits in Egypt for his TV show Al-Bernameg (‘the Program’), said he obeys “no red lines”. He says the audience, not the authorities, should be left to decide the boundaries of satire.

“It is our right to criticize,” Youssef said during a debate at the AMF , which was held in Dubai. “The one who [decides] your limits is the audience.”

An Egypt court last month summoned Youssef on grounds he insulted Islam and the president, a move which raised international concerns over freedom of expression in Egypt.

The satirist regularly takes aim at the country’s ruling Islamists on his wildly popular program, which is modeled on Jon Stewart’s U.S. satirical The Daily Show.

But Youssef today vigorously defended the role of satire in society – as well as the special attention he pays to President Mursi.

“Governments and people in authority must accept criticism. There are people who promise us many things, because they want to be elected,” he said.

“We elected [Mursi] as an employee. Election is not a check that you give someone that they can do whatever they want with.”

Youssef said that he had been asked to visit the authorities in Egypt several times.

“Between us and the prosecutor’s office, there are very frequent visits… I was asked about certain parts of my script, ‘what did you mean by this, or that?’. Some of our colleagues suffered the same.”

Youssef was recently named by TIME magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

He was joined on stage at the Arab Media Forum by several panelists to discuss the role of satire in the Arab world.

Not all agreed with Youssef’s take on the limits of satire.

“I criticize people in power, but there are certain limits we have to respect,” said Hind Khlifat, a Jordan-based writer for Rotana magazine and Al Rai Newspaper.

“I have certain reservations to [the idea of] having no ceiling. Defamation and insults will not be tolerated by everyone… We can convey certain messages but we should respect certain limits.”

Khalaf al-Harbi, a writer for Okaz newspaper in Saudi Arabia, said there are “many red lines”.

But some of them, such as those preventing racial slurs, should be respected, he said. “We should have freedom, as long as it doesn’t cross certain lines – racial, for example,” said al-Harbi.

Al-Harbi said he liked Bassem Youssef “very much” – and would not object if the Egyptian started directing his satire to Saudi Arabia, with the proviso he was “criticizing something [worthwhile].”

Sami Al Reyami, editor in chief of the Emarat Al Youm newspaper in the UAE, said “we need satirical media” – although acknowledged that Bassem Youssef’s approach would not work in all societies.

“Satirical media is one of the hardest arts of journalism,” said al-Reyami. “There is a very fine line between satirical media and defamation and insult.”

Mohamed Fathy, a writer for Al Watan newspaper in Egypt, said it is a myth that there was no satire under the former regime in Egypt.

“We used to be critical of Hosni Mubarak,” he said. “I do not think we can see a ceiling any more… The Egyptian people have earned their freedom.”