Lebanon is a place where everyone has the freedom to shout but no one is listening. Protests are frequent, but change is rare. In its political and social system that divides the population into 18 different sects, every party has means to express itself, but security and religious authorities can stop anyone who challenges the system or those who are powerful in it.
Lebanese artists and organisations discussing matters of free expression say state security has considerable power but does not use a clear legal framework to support its decisions. The Censorship Bureau of the Directorate for General Security reviews scripts for films or plays before, during and after production, and the law is vague enough to allow censorship on whim rather than on legal reason. Free speech advocates say censorship is holding back society from being unified and healing divisions from the civil war.
"Censorship in Lebanon is out-dated," says Ayman Mhanna, executive director of the Samir Kassir Foundation. "It deprives artists of the ability to express their ideas as they want. Censorship prevents people from looking at other opinions and other perspectives. Ultimately, it leads to extremism, because you would only have one set of ideas that can be voiced."
Although Beirut is generally considered a place of creative expression, Lebanon proceeded after the civil war without addressing the sectarian tensions that actually created the war. These divisions are clearly in the forefront of disputes in the country that at times bring arms to the street.
"Since the war, we have lived in a taboo environment where we cannot talk about the war, we cannot talk about our differences, because the leaders thought that this was a solution to our problems," says Lea Baroudi, general coordinator for the March Lebanon organisation that addresses censorship.
"After the civil war, we chose the path of amnesia and amnesty, looking back at our years of conflict," Mhanna says. "If we didn't have that censorship, artists would have had more ideas to dig deeper into the wounds of Lebanese society. It wouldn't have healed them directly, but it would have contributed to a positive process that we've been denied so far in Lebanon."
Advocates of free expression admit that allowing any form of speech is not necessarily going to resolve all the country's problems, but it is a starting point. "It is the right that accompanies all other rights," Baroudi says. "If you don't have freedom of expression and you don't have the freedom to say or advocate for what you believe in, what are we left with?"
Art is often a vehicle for tackling sensitive issues. Picasso's "Guernica" explores the tragedies of the Spanish Civil War, and Omar Khayyam's Rubaiyat confronts the authority of religious clergy, for example. Expression may also be a means of unity by allowing open debate that allows a diversity of opinions.
Some issues have been deemed too sensitive, so expression that approaches specific red lines is often prevented from being produced, or in legal terms, the government exercises prior restraint. According to Mhanna, these lines include talking about the president (both as an individual and an institution), the armed forces, Syria and Hizbullah, friendly nations (in particular Arab countries), enemy countries (specifically Israel), homosexuality, and incest. Religion is also deemed a sensitive topic, and the Censorship Bureau typically sends content related to it to institutions such as Dar Al-Iftaa and the Catholic Media Centre.
Both Baroudi and Mhanna are advocating for the Censorship Bureau to be replaced with a board that would give ratings according to a system, as for films. This would head off the prior restraint moves of the government.
Regardless of censors, many artists in Lebanon are confronting sensitive issues. This is no more widespread than in music, such as hip-hop. Many Lebanese rappers talk about political matters, even if they do so using metaphors and language that avoids directly naming names. Jackson Allers, a music promoter in Lebanon and editor of the World Hip Hop Market online magazine, says rappers have thus far avoided censors because their music has yet to reach mass appeal.
"They feel empowered to say what they want to say and without having to worry, but I don't think they realise they're in a honeymoon period where they haven't been tested and I feel like that's coming and it's approaching more quickly then they thought because of the proximity of Syria, because of the revolutions that are playing out elsewhere," he said.