A little state-sponsored regulation of media is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, no one wants their children to be confronted by a particularly grisly scene from one of the “Saw” movies or Lars Von Trier’s “Antichrist” upon turning on the TV before school in the morning.
However, in the last year Lebanon has witnessed a spike in censorship that media watchdogs believe is not only detrimental to the country’s cultural vitality, but also perpetuates an environment of apathy within Lebanese society toward confronting both the past and fundamental differences between different religious communities.
Since the establishment of Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s government in June 2011, a total of 15 movies have been totally or partly censored.
A graffiti artist has been charged with disrupting public order for stenciling an image of a gun-toting soldier on a wall in Gemmayzeh; a comedian was arrested for revealing a pair of superman underwear during a gig; an artistic impression of Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah was forcefully removed from an art exhibition in BIEL and John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” was temporarily banned under the false assumption that the author may have been Jewish.
These are merely a few examples from a plethora of cases, most prominent among them the banning of the film “Beirut Hotel,” produced by Lebanese filmmaker Danielle Arbid, on the basis that it constituted a threat to national security.
The film contained a reference to a USB memory stick holding documents about the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. It was Arbid’s third film to be banned in Lebanon. Soon afterward she packed her bags, upped and left to Paris.
The Skeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom, established in honor of late journalist and historian Samir Kassir, recently released a web-series called Mamnoua (Forbidden) – a satirical take on the inner workings of the country’s censorship bureau.
Executive director Ayman Mhanna says the inspiration behind the show was to target the actual system of censorship, rather than merely raise objections after particular examples of censoring have taken place.
Mhanna is reluctant to apportion blame for increased censorship on last year’s change of government. Instead he primarily attributes the spike to a misguided sense of protectiveness on behalf of the censorship authorities at a time when civil tensions have been exacerbated by conflict in Syria.
“We live in a schizophrenic system,” says Mhanna. “It pretends to be liberal and free when in reality it is archaic and bureaucratic. One of the central problems is that we never deal with what hurts,” he continues. “We choose amnesty and amnesia over truth and responsibility.”
Mhanna points out that great art – whether in the form of Curtis Mayfield’s “We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue” or Picasso’s “Guernica” – often emerges through hardship, as a reaction to injustice and suffering. The process can be a cathartic experience.
“Giving expression to painful experiences or social injustice enables one to bleed and then heal,” says Mhanna. “In Lebanon we are prevented from doing this to the full extreme.”
Both Mhanna and Lea Barroudi, president of civil rights NGO March, are critical of a lack of transparency at the censorship bureau.
“The lack of transparency is a major problem,” says Barroudi. “Even the censored list is censored by General Security so often people don’t even know what has actually been censored.”
In order to address this problem, March is set to launch a Virtual Museum of Censorship at the end of August.
The website will provide an online archive of censored media – whether films, music, literature or art – while additionally providing a platform for people to report cases of censorship. Earlier in the year, the organization distributed 10,000 copies of a one-off newspaper dealing with different aspects of censorship in 12 universities across the country.
Mhanna and Barroudi point out that extracting information on censorship from Internal Security can also be problematic. Both an unwillingness to communicate reasons underlying specific cases of censorship and the fact that General Security and the Information Ministry are involved in the process makes it difficult to ascertain where rulings have come from.
“They either don’t answer or they lie,” says Barroudi. “We don’t even bother calling them any more.”
Barroudi argues that societal apathy caused by the Civil War and consequent political stasis has created a lack of a civic sense of duty and willingness to campaign for civil liberties. Censoring media related to touchy subjects – whether it be events during the Civil War, the Hariri assassination, or a confession’s specific interpretations of historical events – perpetuates this sense of apathy and nonconfrontation.
“One of the biggest problems in Lebanon is that everything is taboo,” says Barroudi. “We don’t confront each other, and we don’t trust each other. This lack of communication is a basic social problem.”
However, like the issue of civil marriage, maintaining censorship is one of few issues that religious groups are united on. Their influence in society at large provides them with considerable weight to pressure the censorship bureau.
“The religious lobby is extremely influential. Their influence constitutes an explosive mix preventing [Lebanon] from moving forward,” says Mhanna.
Mhanna counters the perception that increased censorship in the last year has arisen as a result of Hezbollah’s prominence within the government.
He points out that Christian objections have resulted in prohibitions against the Dan Brown novel “The Da Vinci Code;” an Al-Manar series depicting the life of Jesus according to Islamic tradition; and a scheduled concert by U.S. electro pop duo LMFAO, due to the appearance of a medallion-clad dancing Jesus in one of the groups’ videos. He says that both Muslim and Christian groups are guilty.
Mhanna and Barroudi fear that Lebanon’s reputation as a relative bastion of intellectual and artistic freedom is increasingly under threat.
“Sometimes I worry that the level of tolerance is at its lowest,” says Mhanna. “We pride ourselves on our culture but artists are leaving. I hope we are not left with a merely cosmetic and commercial art culture.”