The following piece was sent to us by Lili Harries. All expressed thoughts and opinions are that of the author.
Censorship - A Hot Topic, But Is It Relevant?
Censorship is one of the hottest topics in Arabic media– and a controversial one, at that. Saudi Arabian censorship laws routinely come under fire from international freedom advocacy groups, while Western films are routinely banned in Arabic-speaking nations due to content deemed inappropriate for Arabic audiences. Many argue that this stifles speech and artistic truth – if things like nudity, cursing, and drug-taking cannot be shown in all their tawdry glory, how can the truth of human existence possibly be portrayed? However, the issue is far more complex than this.
Personal offence must be taken into account in any debate regarding the censorship of the media. Citizens of Arabic nations are largely in favor of media censorship, with 70% even calling for tighter regulations and controls upon ‘violent and romantic’ content. This 70% finds depictions of such things upsetting, disturbing, and offensive, and would thus prefer not to have themselves or their children exposed to them. The counter-argument, of course, is that the media is driven by the will of the people – if people did not want to see such things, they would not watch them, and thus filmmakers would avoid depicting them in order to save their profits. Indeed, many Arabic censorship customs are self-imposed in just such a manner. The problem arrives when media made under such government-and-self-censorship conditions are exported to the Arabic diaspora worldwide. People of Arabic descent living in parts of the world where censorship is less rife almost sometimes find the cultural productions of their homelands to be confusing and possibly even inferior to those offered by their adopted homes, largely due to the restricted amount of content and stories which can be touched upon due to censorship. Meanwhile, Arabic filmmakers living abroad are dismayed to discover that their productions cannot reach their intended audience due to political and cultural taboos regarding that which can and cannot be shown upon a screen.
Freedom of Expression
The position of many European and American commentators upon the topic is that Saudi-Arabian style censorship is a curtailment of freedoms and artistic expression which naturally stifles the end result. Commentators from the US cite the First Amendment, and condemn nations with strict censorship practices accordingly. However, many of these Western anti-censorship voices miss one essential point – that censorship is by no means a phenomenon restricted to Arabic and Islamic nations. In the UK, the British Board of Film Classification applies an age-related category to each and every film released in the UK. This, they state, is to protect children from viewing ‘unsuitable’ content at a young age. The production teams of films frequently remove scenes in order to gain a lower age rating for their feature, which in effect acts as a form of self-censorship. The US operates a body known as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in order to vet the media and remove content deemed morally damaging or unsuitable. State and local authorities are also allowed to apply their own guidelines and regulations upon film content. In addition, several US television networks have strict rules governing their shows, which effectively allow them to prevent the expression of that which does not fit their own viewpoints and opinions. Much of the resultant censorship has been contradictory and confusing. For example, the Fox Broadcasting Company has a notoriously hardline attitude towards swearing, nudity, and the exposure of liberal views on their shows. They famously censored ‘The Simpsons’ on a variety of occasions – much to the frustration of the writers. However, they appear to have no problem with broadcasting features depicting gory murders, rapes, and even a live suicide.
Independent Thought vs Moral Corruption
Interestingly, the debate regarding censorship within the West reveals a number of contradictions which cut to the heart of the issue as it present in Arabic as much as in Western media. In the USA, the same groups who vociferously advocate American-style ‘freedoms’ and condemn the ‘nannying’ tactics of the liberal faction are – hypocritically – the groups most likely to demand censorship (although they may not phrase it as such) upon moral grounds. It is not uncommon for right-wing groups in America to demand absolute freedom of speech and a lack of government interference with one breath, and announce that something must be done about declining moral standards in the media with the next. Conflict regarding artistic ‘truth’ and expression vs protecting the moral standards of the nation is rife worldwide. In all nations, the more intellectual side of the debate revolves around how much people are influenced by what they see in the media. Some argue that depictions of activities like drug taking in the media ‘normalize’ such things, thus making the plunge into addiction much less daunting. Others argue that genuine art tells the truth and that, as the truth of things like drug-taking is invariably bad, it will act as a deterrent rather than a goad. Still others claim that the best way to prevent adverse effects is to encourage independence of thought and a willingness to question that which is seen rather than take its ‘lessons’ for granted – something which cannot occur if that which people see is strictly policed. Certainly the censorship of drug-taking depictions in Saudi Arabia appears to have done nothing to halt the spread of illegal drugs in the country - indeed, there are those who argue that the spread of drugs within nations with strict censorship is a problem precisely because people are unaware of the serious problems which drugs can cause, and how hard it can be to recover from addiction.
Anti-censorship crusaders are of the opinion that censorship stifles artistic expression – and there is certainly something in that. It is also a shame that a great many Arabic cinematic works made in non-Arabic speaking nations cannot be shown in the lands from which their makers hail due to local censorship laws. Nonetheless, there is something to be said for the ingenuity and artistic integrity of media-makers working within these conditions. It must be remembered that working around conditions imposed from on high has produced some of the greatest and most ingenious forms of art known to humanity. British satire, for example, now famed around the world as a comedic genre and honed to a fine art, grew out of a need to make political statements within a climate hostile to such views. Satire – which takes the mores of a system and hyper-emphasises them in a straight-faced yet comedic manner in order to highlight its failings – could not be condemned as explicit criticism, yet made its point clearly and memorably nonetheless. On a less antagonistic level, the prohibition against aniconism in Islamic art has led to the development of some of the most beautiful and intricate artistic patterns, designs, and disciplines known to humanity. To state that censorship stifles art may not, therefore, be entirely accurate – an artist clever and subtle enough will find a way to make their point, often in a beautiful and fully integrated manner.
A Redundant Topic?
The censorship debate rages back and forth, and it seems that there will never be a resolution. While the censorship and self-censorship mores within some Arabic-speaking countries are extreme, there are those who argue that this promotes a style of filmmaking with much more moral and artistic validity than that of the West, where ‘shock’ value is often used in place of art, and drawing in money-spending crowds is frequently considered more important than the integrity of the piece itself. On the other hand, the intense restrictions have led many budding filmmakers and stars to leave their homelands and head abroad, where they feel that their voices can be heard more freely and that they will be allowed to express themselves with fewer restrictions – thus doing their vision greater justice and reaching a wider audience. Whatever the pros and cons of the case, one thing is clear: that an Arabic filmmaker with something important to say, a vision worth promoting, and an artistic passion which burns strongly will find a way to make that statement, no matter what. In this age of the internet and cross-cultural communication, it is becoming harder and harder to restrict what people see and hear. Saudi Arabia – whose censorship laws are famed and derided throughout the world – has a population who are among the most avid consumers of social media on the planet. Much of the populace gains its news this way, and extrapolates the true situation by cross referencing that which they find on the internet by that which they see and hear from approved news vendors, and drawing their own conclusions. Whatever the moral and political truth of the matter, therefore, censorship may very soon become a redundant topic – impossible to apply, and even more impossible to enforce.