Political satirist Bassem Youssef speaks with Chancellor Dirks about free speech

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Political satirist Bassem Youssef spoke on campus Wednesday evening with Chancellor Nicholas Dirks about free speech as part of the Berkeley Talks series.

Youssef’s show,“Al-Bernameg,” which satirized the Egyptian government through comedic skits and a late-night show format, was cancelled after three years on air.

The cancellation arose from claims that the content of the show targeted Egyptian authorities, Youssef said during the talk. He also spoke about issues his team encountered while producing the show.

“I don’t think we crossed the line,” he said during the talk. “We are the funny people. We are not the people who report the news.”

In 2011, political uprisings in Egypt raised concerns about free speech and free press. President Mohamed Morsi, who served from 2012 to 2013, filed cease-and-desist notices to private Egyptian media outlets, saying he might cut operation if they did not stop their criticisms. In March 2013, Youssef received an arrest warrant for allegedly insulting Islam and Morsi.

Youssef started in political satire by making YouTube videos. After his videos collected millions of views, he received an offer to host a television program, which he modeled after Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show.”

Citing safety concerns, he confirmed to Dirks that “Al-Bernameg” would not return to air.

“When you start to be targeted, you have to take a decision that is good for you and your family,” he said. “When you laugh in the face of fear, (the satire) doesn’t work anymore.”

Throughout the event, Youssef and Dirks were interrupted twice by attendees who protested TV personality Bill Maher’s invitation to speak at the December graduation ceremony. Youssef advised against the idea of uninviting Maher and suggested students to voice opinion through outlets like social media.

According to Nour Eldifrawy, a campus freshman studying material science and engineering who attended the event, the campus should consider students who feel uncomfortable with Maher speaking at graduation.

“I agree (with) Youssef in regards that there are many ways of expressing discontent with Maher besides uninviting him and that Arabs and Muslims must develop better methods in accepting and dealing with criticism,” Eldifrawy said in an email. “However, I do believe that the commencement speech is symbolic.”

In closing, Youssef stated he hopes to see a more diverse interaction of voices in Middle Eastern media, encouraging citizens to control their news.

“Youssef far exceeded my expectations, and his humor was spot on,” Eldifrawy said in an email. “It was clear that he wasn’t at liberty to talk about the situation in Egypt in regards to his show around the time it was pulled off air, but it was a great event by and large.”

Lydia Tuan covers research and ideas. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @tuanlydia.