Palestinian official halts TV series, calls it 'harmful to society'

The attorney general for the Palestinian Authority bans the broadcast of a hit TV series because "it is full of mistakes, is meaningless and is a waste of time for people to watch".

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JERUSALEM // Supporters are threatening legal action. Actors and writers are vowing defiance. And fans are fuming because the Palestinian Authority last week halted the broadcasting of Watan ala Watar, this Ramadan's smash-hit television series. Ahmad Al Mughni, the attorney general of the PA, suspended the Palestinian-created programme after a particularly racy episode aired on Tuesday.

Quoted by the unofficial Palestinian news agency Maan on Wednesday, Mr Mughni said he decided to suspend the series, popular for its tongue-in-cheek portrayal of Palestinian officials, corruption and even inebriated policemen, because "it is full of mistakes, is meaningless and is a waste of time for people to watch".

Calling it "harmful to Palestinian society", he said the programme, aired nightly during the holy month on the PA-run Palestine TV network, "mocks leaders terribly", "has a poor scenario" and crossed "red lines".

That rationale has alarmed those who produce Watan ala Watar, or Nation on a String. They say there was no legal basis for the ban and warned that it set a dangerous precedent.

"This is a dark day for democracy and free speech in Palestine," said Khaled Massou, 40, an actor who has portrayed everyone from US President Barack Obama to Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister, during the series' three seasons.

"Maybe tomorrow they'll start banning books or closing down theatres. What's next?"

He and fellow cast members, who have also been banned from filming the remaining five episodes of the 30-part series, have planned to defy the ban and perform unaired episodes live at a restaurant in Ramallah.

"Nobody can stop us because we believe in what we are doing," Mr Massou said, adding that Watan ala Watar was politically and ideologically independent. "We just believe that actors should reflect the feeling on the street, to be a mirror for society."

Mirror society they do, and then some.

A comedy-sketch programme that has pushed the limits of satire in Palestinian society and its leadership, Watan ala Watar makes fun of Palestinian society and its leaders.

The programme has had a go at medical mishaps at Palestinian hospitals. It has poked fun at official patronage, and portrayed in one episode how the daughter of an influential politician was offered a government job over more qualified but less-well-connected competitors.

Another spoofed an Arab League meeting attended by only two heads of state, who were befuddled by the poor attendance. That was a not-so-subtle reference to the Arab Spring uprisings that have eliminated some of the region's long-serving leaders.

"All that's happening in the Arab world, in Syria and Egypt, it makes this year a lot more difficult than the previous years," Imad Farajin, a writer and actor in the programme, said of the reasons for the punishment.

Yet Watan ala Watar's cast have had good relations with Palestinian politicians.

Last year, they met with Mr Fayyad, the PA prime minister - whom the series has skewered - as well as the PA president, Mahmoud Abbas, who was shown in a previous season's episode to have misplaced the identification necessary to pass through an Israeli checkpoint.

"He said he supported us and told us that you have the right to talk and continue," Mr Farajin said.

Apparently, however, that support was not enough to shield them from complaints, mainly from government and semi-government authorities. The civil servants and physicians unions as well as anti-corruption officials - all mocked in one way or another - had all expressed their ire to the attorney general.

The episode that proved to be the last straw depicted drunken police officers, Mr Massou said. Lacking a breathalyser, a device that detects a person's blood-alcohol level, the officers instead repeatedly smell the breath of a suspected drunk driver to determine whether he was drunk - and in the process become drunk themselves.

The chairman of Palestine TV's board of directors, Yasser Abed Rabbo - an adviser to Mr Abbas - has said he would abide by the decision. However, he also threatened legal action.

"We will stop the programme in abidance with the decision, but at the same time we will turn this matter into a public issue," he said in a statement published on Wednesday on the official Palestinian news agency, Wafa. He warned of legal action because the programme's suspension would "set a serious precedent".

For Asad Hajahjeh, 38, a fruit vendor in Bethlehem, the abrupt suspension of his favourite post-iftar entertainment has only prompted further suspicion of his politicians.

"People are only going to be unhappier and begin to think that the leaders actually have something to hide from us," he said. "This programme is more popular than anything else on TV right now. We'd go all the way to Ramallah just to watch it."