BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. And this is the theme song for a TV show that's caused an international incident.
[THEME SONG UP & UNDER]
Those who doubt that comedy can be a very serious business need look no further than this week’s escalating squabble between the Egyptian government of President Mohammed Morsi and the US State Department.
VICTORIA NULAND: We are concerned that the public prosecutor appears to have questioned and then released on bail Bassem Youssef on charges of insulting Islam and President Morsi. This, coupled with recent arrest warrants issued for other political activists, is evidence of a disturbing trend of growing restrictions on the freedom of expression.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland.
The Muslim Brotherhood's political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, expressed outrage at her, quote, “unreserved audacity” to comment on the case of comedian Bassem Youssef, still under investigation for violating some very old laws.
BASSEM YOUSSEF: The role of insulting the President has been there since the 1880’s, taken from the French law, which was abandoned in 1904! We are operating with a law that has been obsolete for over a century! It’s ridiculous.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Out on bail, Youssef was on CNN this week, vowing to hold President Morsi to his promise to safeguard free expression. Later on CBS, he said he’d stay the course.
BASSEM YOUSSEF: We’re not censoring ourself, at all. And we’re just like out there, like yeah, come and get me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A heart surgeon who tended the wounded in Tahrir Square during the uprising, Youssef is host of the hugely popular TV show called “The Show.” It’s modeled on “The Daily Show.” Youssef is [LAUGHS] modeled on Jon Stewart who calls him a brother.
After his arrest, Stewart came down hard on President Morsi. Then the US Embassy in Cairo tweeted a link to Stewart’s monologue, generating more outrage. Then the Embassy deleted the link.
JON STEWART: For someone who spent time in jail yourself under Mubarak, you seem awfully eager to send other people there for the same non-crimes. And just like you, they will only emerge from prison stronger and more determined, so – all sending comedians and bloggers to prison accomplishes is lowering the quality of prison yard athletics.
BASSEM YOUSSEF: I always dreamt of having something like this in Egypt, where you actually have no limits in satire.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: When we met Youssef in Cairo shortly after the revolution, his show was already popular but not like now, not with tens of millions of viewers. Visions of his hero Jon Stewart danced in his head. So did predictions of greater reach and impact.
BASSEM YOUSSEF: This is why I’m panicking.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is why you’re panicking?
BASSEM YOUSSEF: Yeah, this is why I’m panicking. Right now I’m not actually voicing my opinion. [TRAFFIC NOISE/HORN] But you can’t just be in the middle, being neutral. When you start actually to discuss current events, you will have to take a stand. You will actually have to piss some people. This kind of honeymoon will not last. Sarcasm here is - in Egypt, in the Arab world, is very new. Once you make sarcasm about a certain person, this guy takes it very personally. You see Jon Stewart making fun of McCain and he's hosting him the next day. Right? Here, that doesn't work this way.
MAN: We – we are five years away. We – we are five years away from this problem.
BASSEM YOUSSEF: No, we’re actually 50 years away from this, seriously.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The incident has exposed growing tension between the US and Egypt. Secretary of State John Kerry expressed concern over Egypt's direction. He said it’s at a tipping point. David Kirkpatrick, Cairo Bureau Chief for the New York Times says that Bassem Yousseff, who went back on the air Friday, is a difficult critic to contain.
DAVID KIRKPATRICK: In his most memorable line, he was attacking the Salafis, the ultra-conservative sheikhs who’ve become quite powerful and very doctrinaire, and he said to them on his show, he said, look, you say to us that we’re not good Muslims. We say to you that you’re not sheikhs and scholars. And when they come back and try to attack here and make fun of them, well, that’s a losing proposition because they’re really quite solemn people and he just turns it on their head and makes them look like total jokers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And he is a very devout Muslim, but he did say that there were people who want to make this a struggle between seculars and Islam, and he objects to that framing. Is that the basis for the charge that he's anti-Islamic?
DAVID KIRKPATRICK: No, no, that’s not the basis for the charge at all. There are religious people who want to make it a religious, secular divide in Egypt, and there are secular people who want to make it a religious secular divide. And Bassem Youssef is neither of those, but it’s more resonant when he comes under attack than when some other figure does, ‘cause there have been quite a few of these people being charged with insulting the President or insulting Islam or insulting Christianity or burning the Bible. I mean, you know, the United States is a litigious country but we’ve got nothing on Egypt. They love a lawsuit!
DAVID KIRKPATRICK: You know, people – they value the courts because for a long under Mubarak the courts tried their best when Egypt was not a country where the law of rule really meant anything, to uphold the principles of the rule of law even though the autocracy around them often prevented them from carrying out their rulings. And so, people feel very strongly about the court and they love to go to the courts.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what is the state of press freedom in Egypt right now?
DAVID KIRKPATRICK: You might say, well look, a lot of these Islamist lawyers are filing these lawsuits for insulting the President. I think they’re trying to intimidate the media, and maybe so, but if that’s what they’re trying to do, they are not having any luck whatsoever. People have been hauled into court on these charges of insulting the President. They turn around, they go right back on the air and they continue to insult the President or say whatever it was they were saying.
The most notable case prior to Bassem Youssef is of a talk show host named Tawfiq Okasha. He’s a Mubarak supporter. He hates the Islamists. He hates Morsi. The purpose of his show is basically to insult the President. And he was brought up on charges of insulting the President and inciting violence against him. He was acquitted by a Cairo court and they cited some of the freedom of expression language in the Constitution and they said in this new era we’re going to let him go free. And I thought to myself, well, if Tawfiq Okasha can get off on charges of insulting the President, then the charge of insulting the President has been pretty much eviscerated.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What about less prominent critics of the government, bloggers who don't have high visibility, wouldn’t all of this litigation have a chilling effect on them?
DAVID KIRKPATRICK: It would if you supposed that they were afraid, but that’s not the Egypt we’re living in right now. You know, the revolution is still in the air. You know, the Egyptian media believes that the relationship between the people and the government has changed. Right now, nobody in the media is about to knuckle under.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Where do you think Egyptian media will be two years from now?
DAVID KIRKPATRICK: Well, we’re at a moment when the principle of freedom of expression is kind of a battleground. You know, the, the truth of the matter is that even the most zealous advocates of freedom of expression and the human rights groups will admit that most Egyptians right now think that it ought to be a crime to insult the President or to insult the Prophet, or even to insult the Bible. There is not the kind of expectation of a really robust protection of freedom of expression in Egypt that there is in the United States.
And that’s one of the reasons why these high-profile battles like the problem of Bassem Youssef, might turn out to be important. It could be that Bassem Youssef will be the figure that first establishes the right to make fun of a President of Egypt, in the way that John Peter Zenger, you know, before the American Revolution, established the right of the free press in our country to make fun of and mock the powerful.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The signature accomplishment of the Zenger case was to allow truth to be a defense against the charge of libel, which it wasn't in England.
DAVID KIRKPATRICK: That’s right, although I think a number of the things that he printed, actually, were quite ad hominem –
- and not so much true or false as just plain old insulting to the role of the appointed Governor of New York at the time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And that is the true test of free speech.
DAVID KIRKPATRICK: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] David, thank you so much.
DAVID KIRKPATRICK: It’s my pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: David Kirkpatrick is the New York Times Cairo Bureau Chief.