SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom - Samir Kassir Foundation

Cultural Freedom Violations in MENA during the First Half of 2022

Monday , 08 August 2022

From January 1 to June 30, 2022, the Samir Kassir Foundation (SKF) documented 49 artistic and cultural freedom violations across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. It is important to note that these cases do not represent the full extent of violations that occurred in the region as there is a widespread culture of self-censorship mechanisms, which cannot be easily documented. The challenges that artists and culture professionals face are compounded by the lack of proper legislative frameworks to protect them in their work. Also unprotected are journalists who try to report on human rights and artistic violations, which makes a comprehensive documentation of all types of violations almost impossible.


Egypt is the country with the highest number of documented violations, representing 37% (20 cases of a total of 49).

Fig.1 - Breakdown of violations per country

Films have been the most targeted artform category and represent the majority 52% of documented cases (28 out of 49).

Fig. 2 - Breakdown of violations per type of artistic activity

Censorship has been the most recurring form of violation, representing 54% of the total documented cases (29 out of 49).

Fig. 3 - Breakdown of violations per type

An LGBTQ-minus for the Arab world

One of the most blatant violation trends SKF identified was censorship of artworks tackling LGBTQ+ content. This was the case for two major Hollywood movies depicting gay characters: Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and the animated film Lightyear, both by Disney and respectively released in April and June 2022. The movies were restricted in most of the MENA countries, under the pretext of “promoting homosexuality” by the simple fact they featured homosexual characters. In some cases, the relevant censorship authorities were straightforward in banning them, but in other cases, conservative groups in each country had a role in pushing for and demanding a ban.

In April 2022, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness was banned in Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia because the movie featured the openly lesbian character America Chavez.

In Egypt, it is on April 23, 2022, that the Supreme Council for Media Regulation, which is a government regulating body in charge of providing clearance for media outlets and broadcasters, decided to ban the movie. The news was shared by the biggest movie theatre company in the country IMAX Plaza on their Twitter account.

A few days later, on April 27, 2022, Kuwait and Jordan announced they would also ban the movie from being shown in movie theatres because the sexual orientation of the character was deemed “immoral” to the “local culture.” The Jordan Media Commission (JMC) announced the ban after its request to cut the scenes where the references to same-sex sexual orientation were mentioned was refused by Disney. The decision was based on the provisions of Article (7/b) of the Audiovisual Literature System and its Monitoring No. 63 of 2004 and its amendments, which stipulate: “Any part of a literature that violates any of the censorship conditions stipulated in Article 4 of this system shall be banned from screening.” In 2021, the JMC also used the same provision of law to ban other films in which LGBTQ+ characters are shown, including another Disney movie Eternals.

Saudi Arabia also banned the movie from being released in its movie theatres after it tried to negotiate with the distributors to have the scenes cut, but in vain.

In Kuwait, it is the Ministry of Information that announced the movie ban for “violating public morality,” a decision motivated by the same reasons.

In June 2022, the animated movie Lightyear was banned in Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia,
Syria, and the United Arab Emirates because of an openly lesbian character called Alisha who shared a kiss with her partner.

On June 13, 2022, the Media Regulatory Office (MRO) in the United Arab Emirates, which falls under the Ministry of Youth and Culture, announced on their Twitter account that the animated movie Lightyear, by Pixar and Disney, was banned in the country “due to its violation of the country’s media content standards” because of a kiss shared by a lesbian couple. However, the movie had already obtained clearance from the authorities for its screening and was scheduled to be released in movie theatres on June 16, 2022. A Twitter campaign carried out by local Emiratis, where members of the community expressed discontent towards the homosexual references in the movie, led the MRO to revoke its decision after the campaign caught its attention. The movie was then ruled to be “contrary to the culture and religion of the country” and banned.

As for Saudi Arabia, the relevant authorities asked the distributing company to cut the scene with homosexual references for the movie to be granted screening permits for movie theatres. This request was highly contested by Pixar and Disney staff.

For a couple of years now, Hollywood movies, and more generally the movie industry in the West, have redefined their policies in terms of character representation in an effort to give more visibility to different sexual orientations in order to achieve “better inclusivity.” For these reasons, Pixar and Disney did not compromise on their value and vision and preferred to lose some markets in the MENA instead of censoring the films. The same scenario happened in Jordan with the JMC having its request to cut the scenes in question refused by Pixar and Disney.

As for Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, and Syria, it remains unclear to this day if the movie distributors were faced with the same editing demand to get clearance or if the movie was straightforwardly banned. What is known is that the movie was not shown in the movie theatres.

While it used to be common practice for authorities to bargain with movie distributing companies to get some scenes censored when tackling topics of sexuality, drugs, or religion, the tide seems to be turning. Full-out censorship under the pretext of “preserving values and morals” with a religious motivation is, nowadays, a more common practice in the region. When religion has such a grip on society, it goes without surprise that the community itself serves the interests of the establishment and takes hold of what cultural objects should or should not be censored. The aforementioned countries still criminalize homosexuality and persecute same-sex couples on a daily basis. Any reference to LGBTQ+ will be considered as promoting homosexuality and will be banned, even if it means that a simple kite for kids dared to carry the colors of a rainbow.

Another worrying case that is close to becoming a trend consists of targeting artists for their sexual orientation and taking away from them their opportunity to perform and work.

This was the case in Palestine when on June 17, 2022, a group of men led by Palestinian activist Yaman Jarrar launched a campaign to prevent Palestinian singer Bashar Murad from performing at Al-Mustawda3 Cultural Center in Ramallah on the ground that the artist is gay. In a video, we can hear the men saying that Murad “does not represent us or our free people.” We also see Jarrar, the son of a prominent Hamas preacher, Sheikh Bassam Jarrar, threatening the employees and demanding the cancellation of the concert. He says: “We came to you very respectfully to communicate the message that we will not allow these perverts to pass. We ask you not to test our patience when it comes to things God prohibited, and we will not allow anyone to dare to violate our honorable religion, this is a red line.” The cultural center was not able to secure the artist’s safety following the threats and cancelled Murad’s performance.

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