Africa

Ramadan TV pranks go to extremes in ratings battle

Paris Hilton is supposedly fooled into believing her plane is crashing Image copyright Egyptian TV
Image caption Celebrities such as Paris Hilton have been the subject of prank shows

From shipwrecks to terror attacks to an air disaster involving Paris Hilton, it seems that almost nothing is off-limits for the prank shows that have become a staple of North African TV during the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan.

A recent programme in Algeria earned fierce criticism for fooling a renowned communist novelist into believing he had been arrested for "atheism and espionage".

During the segment, 75-year-old Rachid Boudjedra was forced by fake police officers to repeat the Islamic proclamation "God is Greatest" and utter the two Islamic testimonies of faith.

The programme, called We Got You was later suspended amid a wave of criticism from civil society.

Image copyright Ennahar TV
Image caption Algerian novelist Rachid Boudjedra (L) was pranked in Ennahar TV's show Rana Hakamnak (We Got You)

TV has become an important part of the Islamic holy month, and broadcasters will often commission special programmes to draw audiences in as they break their fast in the evening.

Prank TV shows have risen in popularity, but have also earned criticism in recent years for taking things too far.

Staged terror attack

Egyptian actor Ramez Galal has established himself as a major TV prankster, with a series of programmes featuring celebrities in increasingly extreme scenarios.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Watching TV has become an important part of Ramadan for some

In one edition, he fooled celebrities into believing they were on a sinking ship, surrounded by floating body parts and an approaching shark.

In another, victims were locked inside a supposed ancient Egyptian tomb containing bats, insects and a mummy rising from the dead.

In 2013 during a programme entitled Ramez, the Fox of the Desert, guest celebrities were fooled into believing the bus they were travelling on had been intercepted by militants.

The mock militants pretended to shoot the driver dead and then blindfolded and handcuffed the guests.

Image copyright Al-Hayah TV
Image caption Pranks sometimes replicate real life terror attacks

This was aired at a time when Egypt was witnessing a surge in terror attacks, particularly in the region of Sinai, where military convoys were often attacked by armed bandits in desolate areas.

Galal revels in the controversy. In a trailer for his show, he admits to "torturing his friends and fellow actors because he loves them".

And it may be that only the audience is being fooled. Sharp-eyed viewers often find clues signalling that the guests are in on the prank.

Some celebrities have confirmed that this was the case.

Fatwas

Tunisia's The Earthquake is another controversial programme which fools guests into believing they are experiencing a violent tremor.

Image copyright Tunisiyya TV
Image caption Contestants in The Earthquake are convinced that a major tremor is under way

In one episode, an elderly religious leader insisted on continuing to pray despite the ongoing quake.

The show was widely criticised on social media for disregarding the age and health conditions of the guests, who seemed genuinely scared.

Similar charges were levelled at Algeria's We Got You. Following the episode featuring Mr Boudjedra, one Algerian novelist said it was "unbelievable that a famous writer was ridiculously pranked with no regards to his age or fame".

Religious bodies in the region have recently issued fatwas (religious edicts) asserting that terrorising people for any purpose is religiously forbidden.

The shows are also criticised, like the slew of entertainment programmes aired during Ramadan, for being a distraction from spiritual dedication during the holy month.

Chasing ratings

Egyptian media expert Yasser Abd-al-Aziz told the BBC that the prevalence of TV pranks has forced production companies to push the boundaries of good taste in order to attract audience and advertising revenue.

But one popular show entitled The Shock appears to buck this trend, with more traditional pranks, rather than terrifying ordeals.

Image copyright Ennahar TV
Image caption Some describe The Shock as one of the best programmes aired during Ramadan

The show is filmed in a number of Arab countries, capturing reactions to staged situations such as a man violently scolding his wife, a student insulting his teacher or a child standing helpless in the cold weather asking passers-by for a coat.

It has won over audiences across the the region by exploring how strangers interact in dramatic but everyday situations.

As Twitter user @Nooruldeen89 put it: "Despite the acts being staged, The Shock awakens the human in you and makes you rethink your perspective."

BBC Monitoring reports and analyses news from TV, radio, web and print media around the world. You can follow BBC Monitoring on Twitter and Facebook.

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