Smile! You’re on Kalashnikov Camera!

Hilarious fake airplane crashes, amusing mock decapitations and comical hijackings: This Ramadan TV season has seen TV viewers around the Arab world subjected to a particularly tasteless and unimaginative crop of hidden camera shows, writes Mustapha Benfodil in Algeria’s El Watan.

The hidden camera show “Hostages” hosted by Sofiane Dani and broadcasted during this Ramadan month on Echourouk TV is clearly missing its mark and turning into a fiasco, to judge from the huge wave of outrage that it has generated among viewers. The show’s conceit is a simulated hostage seizure at a café by a terrorist group.

The show is filmed in a gulf country. Always fond of exoticism, Dani and his team certainly have not skimped in their latest attempt to do something over-the-top sensational. Last year, their hunting territory was Thailand, in a hidden-camera show of a similar type called Operation Thai Thai, broadcast on KBC. The stunt? An armed attack on a small village where the show’s hidden-camera target had been brought after a supposed automobile breakdown.

Superficially, the idea of these hidden-camera shows is to test the reaction of the person who is being pranked, when he is placed in an extreme situation. But the real purpose is of course to “build buzz,” and to blow up the ratings in a TV market that is increasingly competitive and vicious.

Browsing the social media commentary on Hostages, and there is a lot of it, it is fairly clear that many of the show’s viewers did not enjoy the prank very much.

In particular it was Episode 4, broadcast on June 21, that seems to have disgusted viewers: the victim in this episode of the show was Majid Bougherra, the star of the Algerian national soccer team who currently plays for the Emirati club Al-Fujaira. While the former captain of the Algerian squad was having lunch with a Tunisian acquaintance in an unnamed Gulf city, armed men burst into the restaurant.

Bougherra was thrown to the floor before being forced into a tiny room where he was packed in with other “hostages.” The room was filled with panicked crying. “Magic” Bougherra stoically kept his cool. Eventually, blindfolded and with his hands tied behind his back, he was forced into the back of a four wheel drive vehicle and driven out into the desert. The former Glasgow Rangers player was then filmed in close-up, a black blindfold on his face, ready to meet his end, the image calculated to look like an ISIS [DAESH] execution. The video immediately circulated around the Web, provoking an uproar.

“This show, instead of making us laugh, brought back the worst memories of the era when fear and blood were not just products for a hidden camera,” wrote on infuriated poster on Facebook. Another wrote: “This is such a sensitive subject; we lived through blind terrorism and here you are scaring people: shame on you!” Another expressed a similar sentiment. “These are people who did not see real blood flowing in the streets of Bentalha and all over Algeria.” Some pointed out how risky it is to inflict terror like this on potentially fragile people “Just take a minute to imagine if the victim were to have a heart attack,” one wrote on Facebook, adding that “clearly all these people care about are their ratings.”

Among others who were also caught on this tasteless ‘hidden camera’ was the politician Rachid Nekkaz. But it was clearly the former captain of the national team, and his popularity with the public, which made the biggest impression; to the point that even the English press took note of this particular terrible joke. The Facebook page of the show itself happily provides a link to a Daily Mail article entitled “Footballer forced to kneel for “execution” in shock TV prank.”

It barely needs to be pointed out that Sofiane Dani and his team have not come up with anything new here, and that our television channels are doing little but borrowing (or outright robbing) television concepts which have already been done and redone a thousand times before.

This year, hidden camera shows have become an epidemic, a plague of Ramadan locusts; they have veered into the realm of overdose. And in the presence of such an abyss of ideas, television producers have tumbled into a frenetic competition, piling trash on top of trash, ever more sensational glue their viewers to their seats and prevent them from picking up the remote and switching over to a competitor’s channel.

Here’s a fashionable scenario from Arab TV channels: airplane breakdowns in mid-flight. Two separate hidden-camera shows are competing for viewers in the Middle East: Ramez in Control, hosted by the very controversial Ramez Jalal, and Forced Landings, presented by the comedian Hani Ramzi.

The Tunisian channel Attassia is also broadcasting a show in the same vein entitled “The Plane.” That broadcast is produced by Moez Ben Gharbia, the channel’s editor in chief, and hosted by the comedian Wassim Migalo. In addition to simulating a plane crash, the Tunisian hidden camera ups the suspense a few more notches by pretending to bring the plane down, with the prank’s victim aboard, into the city of Misrata, right in the middle of Libya’s fiery and bloodstained civil war.

Then the plane gets seized by armed men. From the first broadcast of “The Plane,” it was a diplomatic catastrophe. The Libyan newspaper Fajr violently attacked the Tunisian broadcaster, accusing it of libeling the combatants of Misrata. The Tunisian authorities got involved and promised to do something. A court eventually ordered the broadcast suspended.

Others got involved as well: the preacher Bachir ben Hassan explicitly condemned the hidden-camera show in question, thundering that “to inflict fear on the believer is the same as killing him!” One thing is certain: with the bloody attack that has now taken place in Sousse, it is unlikely that many Tunisians will be laughing along with the escapades of politician Abdelfattah Mourou when his plane gets pretend-hijacked by a bunch of masked men…

Mustapha Benfodil Translated from French by International Boulevard