Aug 24 2012

Censorship in Lebanon

by Olivier Krischer

Actor Bassel Madi as Seargent Najem in the web series “Mamnou3!,” allegedly documenting the day to day work of Lebanon’s censorship bureau. Courtesy Nadim Lahoud and “Mamnou3!,” Beirut. 

The mention of film in Lebanon might bring to mind the Lebanese Film Festival—being held over this weekend, August 23–26, in Beirut. Unfortunately, however, the work of Lebanon’s filmmakers has all too often this year been in the headlines due to the steady increase of censorship in the country. Yet, rather than simply being a story of creativity versus conservatism, the frustrated struggle of artists is one of citizens vying for a space in which to freely, personally reflect on their nation’s complex and often traumatic recent past, in order to imagine and contribute to a better future.

The issue gained international prominence when Danielle Arbid’s fictional love story between a Lebanese singer and French lawyer, Beirut Hotel (2011), originally due to be shown in Beirut from January 2012, was banned the month before by Lebanon’s General Security—the information office which vets works to be made, filters works in circulation and responds to applications from individual groups for works to be censored. Arbid’s third consecutive work to meet this fate, Beirut Hotel was apparently banned due to references to the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, and in particular the mention of a USB stick containing information pertinent to the unsolved case. Despite being merely a fictional intrigue, censors questioned Arbid about her “sources” and deemed the work a “threat to national security.” Ironically, they did not take issue with the movie’s explicit sex scenes.

In April, Arbid and a colleague were reported to be launching an unprecedented court case against the Lebanese state on the grounds that General Security has no legal right to censor a work based on its story. However, by the time she spoke to the New York Times in July, the filmmaker had already relocated to France, “in disgust.” 

However, thousands of Lebanese viewers would have by then seen the film anyhow, either when it was aired in January by European television channel Arte (one of the film’s co-producers), or on cheap, locally available DVD copies. And it certainly didn’t prove dangerous when shown at last year’s Dubai International Film Festival, in December. Which begs the question currently being pursued by rights activists—what exactly is the Lebanese public allegedly being protected from, besides the specter of its own past?

On the one hand, the country’s censorship stipulations are broad to the point that anything can be deemed censurable at the discretion of the authorities. According to General Security, creative works should not “pose any danger or harm to Lebanon,” nor touch on “political or military sensitivities” or incite “sectarian or factional discord.” While the emphasis is on public security and localized political correctness, the result is a climate in which directly confronting—or even accidentally alluding to—the nation’s troubled past or lingering tensions has become off limits. As in many countries, young people in Lebanon took their debates into cyberspace, finding a space for self-expression in blogs and social media. The government at first was slow to respond. However, in March the internet too was dragged into the quagmire, when the head of the Ministry for Information, Walid al-Daouq, passed laws prohibiting the web publishing of “anything that offends public morals and ethics.” Typical of the situation overall, the laws were passed without any form of public consultation, nor any definition of a moral or ethical standard.

Ayman Mhanna, executive director of the Samir Kassir Foudation’s Skeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom, based in Beirut, describes the status quo as one of increasing “apathy.” Since prime minister Najib Mikati’s Hezbollah-led coalition came to power in June last year, over 15 films alone have been subject to censorship, many of them local, among a broad variety of other targeted cultural works and events. Naturally there are the usual foreign suspects, including The Da Vinci Code (2003, deemed anti-Christian) or American sitcom “The West Wing” (1999–2006)—deemed anti-Arab, despite being regarded as providing a critical counterweight when it aired during the recent Bush administration years. Local English newspaper the Daily Star has steadily reported on diverse local victims including Zeina el-Khalil’s Super Star (2006), a painting that contains a likeness of Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah and which was forcibly removed from exhibition at the Beirut International Exhibition and Leisure Center in July after security personnel objected to the painting being shown in a venue serving alcohol. Even John Steinbeck’s 1937 novel Of Mice and Men was temporarily banned after censors mistakenly thought the author was Jewish. 

Another issue is the apparent willingness of General Security to respond to the conservative demands of the country’s many influential religious groups—of all denominations. In May, the Catholic Information Council applied for censorship of writer-director Joe Bou Eid’s debut feature Tannoura Maxi (“Heels of War,” 2012), also a love-story, but one involving a novitiate priest, and set amid the 1982 Israeli invasion. Eid responded to critics saying the scenario is inspired by his own parents. Less than two weeks ago, the television stations NBN and al-Manar announced the cancellation of a slated Iranian series on the life of Christ as seen from the Islamic tradition, saying in a joint statement that it was “to prevent any negative exploitation.” The series had been condemned by the Melkite Greek Catholic patriarch, Gregorios III, for perceived distortions of Biblical and Quranical history.

On May 16, however, following the censure of Eid’s film, an opinion piece in the leading local Arabic daily An-Nahar, by Father Georges Massouh, warned that banning films results in “confiscating” the country’s civil liberties, holding them hostage to the interests of certain religious “sects.” “They also want to hold hostage the minds, choices and tastes of the Lebanese people,” Fr. Massouh was quoted as saying. “Where is the danger in a film on faith? If somebody changes his faith after seeing such a film, the problem lies in the faith of some, and not the film.”

In this sense, the current situation is not the responsibility of a particular regime, but rather is rooted in the post-civil war era of the 1990s within which artists of all kinds must try to carve out a space for self-expression amid the conflicting interests of sectarian groups and an entrenched cultural watchdog mechanism in the government apparatus. Naturally this echoes longstanding debates in Lebanon about secularism, and to what extent the government should balance the many interests of the religious groups that officially comprise the multi-faith state.

In an interview with Arte on January 20, accompanying her film’s debut on the channel, Arbid pointed to the underlying issue at stake in her film’s case. “They were angry that I did not shoot the version I had presented to them. In Lebanon, getting a theatrical release for a movie is a complex business. To shoot a fictional film, you need filming permission from the General Security committee, linked to the Lebanese Interior Ministry. Before giving their approval, they demand to read a completed script.” This can lead to requests to tailor works (which many artists, such as Arbid, refuse) or to outright banning. 

In other words, the agency sees itself as a necessary cog in Lebanon’s cultural machinery, through which all works must pass to be legitimate, which some have pointed out is a notion of governance that seems legally rooted in the colonial authority of the French Mandate era. But rather than being radical or experimental, for most artists, ending up with an “unscripted” film or artwork is merely the nature of the creative process, as much a result of individual choices as pragmatic problem-solving.

Panel participants in the debate on 1 August at the Hotel Gabriel, titled “Censorship in Lebanon: An Uncensored Look.” (From left) Jihad el Murr, Tarek Mitri, Jean-Pierre Katrib, André Cassas and Colette Naufal. Courtesy of March, Beirut.

Resilient groups of rights activists and artists have continued advocating for freedom of expression, some in response to recent incidents, while others have been monitoring the situation for many years. The civil rights NGO March, established in February last year, organizes initiatives for the protection of freedoms of expression, posting updates and connecting likeminded supporters on their Facebook page “Stop Cultural Terrorism in Lebanon.” On August 1, led by director Léa Baroudi, March held a debate on censorship between various cultural actors along with the head of the Ministry of Information, André Cassas. Next week the organization launches a “Virtual Museum of Censorship,” which according to March’s Yasmina Takieddine, “is an online platform for people to be able to browse, search for or just learn about what literary and artistic works have been censored in Lebanon since the 1950s. Viewers can search and browse for data by category (art, books, music, movies, plays, radio, press) or by period (decades from the 1950s).” In October, they will collaborate with Share (an international conference about the internet, activism and music), to hold the “Share Beirut” festival, including everything from conference talks to live music events, focused on educating and involving a wider audience in the protection of basic freedoms of civil and creative expression.

Earlier this year, through the Heinrich Boell Foundation, a comprehensive book-length study of the censorship apparatus, titled Censorship in Lebanon: Law and Practice, by lawyer-activists Nizar Saghieh, Rana Saghieh and Nayla Geagea, was made available in English translation on the Foundation’s website under Creative Commons. These research-oriented activists are part of a broader lobby group of cultural organizations, under the name Marsad al-Raqaba (“The Censorship Observatory” or “The movement for reviewing censorship laws in Lebanon”) that is seeking a thorough review of censorship laws.

While academic scrutiny of the law may prove that General Security has no legal basis to exercise its broad powers of prior- and post-censorship—as Saghieh et al’s study concludes—others have found more entertaining ways of raising awareness and gathering support. In late June, local filmmaker Nadim Lahoud and his team, with the support of the Samir Kassir Foundation’s Skeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom, launched the web-series “Mamnou3!” (“Forbidden”), a mockumentary in which a film crew have apparently been invited for the first time ever to document the interior workings of the country’s censorship bureau to promote public appreciation of their invaluable work. According the series’ website—featuring all nine English-subtitled episodes, each around eight-minutes-long—the project “is first and foremost an attempt to popularize the fight for cultural freedom in Lebanon. By highlighting the absurdity of state censorship, the series invites the citizen to ask the following question: ‘By whom, why and by what authority is censorship carried out in the Lebanese State?’"

Commenting on the current situation in an email to ArtAsiaPacific this week, Lahoud said: “Statistically, the number of censorship cases has gone up significantly over the past two years. However, ‘Mamnou3!’ has shown just how irrelevant censorship has become, no matter how aggressive it may be. With today’s technology and a bit of creativity it has become impossible for the authorities to forbid the forbidden.” Episode 10, the season finale, will air this Sunday, yet Lahoud hopes to continue the series. “There’s still a lot to poke fun at!” he says. 

While artistic freedoms are certainly part of the current struggle, the authors of Censorship in Lebanon: Law and Practice remind us that freedom of expression represents a principle more fundamental still. “It is the right of any citizen to discover him or herself through creativity and to play a role in the discussion of current affairs.” Censors may not be wrong in assuming that such decisions are the stuff of national security—only that, contrary to their thinking, the nation’s security continues to be undermined by an authority which denies the Lebanese public, artists included, the right to address their history and society as individuals.

(From left) Actors Razane Jammal, Rami Atallah, Lareine Khoury and Bassel Madi, act as members of Lebanon’s censorship bureau in the spoof web series “Mamnou3!.” Courtesy Nadim Lahoud and “Mamnou3!,” Beirut.