International media attention given to Lebanese censorship usually focuses on the banning of Western films, like “The Da Vinci Code” or the animated “Persepolis.” But the real victims of the Directorate for General Security and its zealous censors are local film and theater directors, who face an often arduous process to secure permits for filming, screening or staging creative works.
General Security follows its own internal mandate, and its directives can be stretched in any direction: Censors decree that creative works should not “pose any danger or harm to Lebanon,” should not upset “political or military sensitivities” and should not incite “sectarian or factional discord.” Unlike cases of paper publications, the censorship process for local film and theater unfolds entirely outside the courts. While publications can only be censored if a lawsuit is brought against them (and authors and journalists can defend themselves in the Court of Publications), directors cannot question or appeal General Security’s decision to bowdlerize or entirely ban their work.
In recent years, local civil society organizations have begun to speak up against this practice; these voices seek not only to curb censorship, but to limit General Security’s extensive powers and curb its considerable autonomy from even the minister of the interior, who have thus far been unable to assert control over it, particularly in matters of censorship.
Last year, a coalition of the major cultural organizations in Lebanon (such as Metropolis DC, Ashkal Alwan, Né à Beyrouth, among others) grouped under Marsad al-Raqaba (“The Censorship Observatory”), and organized the first collective effort to provide a comprehensive assessment of censorship exercised by state institutions.
Led by prominent human rights lawyer Nizar Saghieh, the Observatory’s research exposed the degree to which political and religious leaders are directly involved in censorship cases. It documented how General Security’s censorship department routinely sends films and other creative works that might upset religious institutions to these bodies (like Dar al-Fatwa, the highest Sunni religious authority, or the Catholic Information Center), and almost always complies with their wishes on whether to excise scenes or ban a work altogether.
In May, for example, after a request from the Catholic Information Center, General Security asked that certain scenes be removed from Joe Bou Eid’s “Tannoura Maxi” because they were allegedly “offensive to Christianity.”
Similarly, individual political figures are also routinely consulted on creative works that mention them or their parties. Films on the Civil War have been routinely censored since the 1990s on the grounds that references to the conflict “threatens civil peace.”
In actuality, however, it only threatens the peace of mind of the warlords who are still in power. For example, Randa Shahal, who represents an older generation of Lebanese directors who tackled the Civil War, saw many of her films brutally cut – the most famous of which is “A Civilized People” (1999). Simon El Habre was forced to excise six minutes of his 2009 documentary “One Man Village,” because it mentioned the role of the Progressive Socialist Party during the Civil War.
Marsad al-Raqaba’s efforts have been followed by others. Encouraged by the region’s year of uprisings, activists have acquired an increasingly diminishing tolerance for security forces’ control over creative expression. Recently, the Skeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom (SKeyes) – an organization established in 2007 by the Samir Kassir Foundation to monitor and publicize violations of freedom of the press and artistic expression in the Levant – launched Mamnou3 (“Prohibited”), a mockumentary series that parodies the internal workings of the General Security’s censorship department. In one clip, an officer of the Directorate smiles smugly as he edits a famous theater director’s script, pleased with his own creativity in altering the text to suit “public morals.”
Since Lebanon lacks Internet regulation, SKeyes hopes to avoid a possible ban by focusing the campaign online and promoting it via social media platforms. Although it is too early to gauge whether Mamnou3 will provoke a backlash from General Security, the campaign has already received considerable media attention in Lebanon and beyond, and the first three episodes released on YouTube have already attracted almost 11,000 views in the week since their release. Seven additional episodes are planned.
Both SKeyes and Marsad al-Raqaba call for ending General Security’s oversight powers and establishing instead an independent regulatory body to apply a rating system for films or plays. The new body would also receive complaints after works have been screened or staged and rule on whether the work should be censored – rather than the current practice of censoring a film or play while still under production.
Daunting challenges remain, and a number of forces impede progress: an intransigent political class, aggressive security forces unwilling to surrender arbitrary powers, and conservative citizens who worry about uncensored creative expression. Civil society organizations will have to put aside their differences and work harder at coordinating their efforts – much like the defenders of censorship have; in the early 2000s, religious leaders established the Commission to Preserve Values in an effort to monitor media ethics and morals. The organization has made a number of complaints to the office of the public prosecutor regarding scantily clad women in television programs and on billboards, and has called on the state to preserve “people’s dignity” and to censor programs, films and publications.
Despite this, there remains much hope. In the past two years, thanks to Marsad al-Raqaba’s efforts, the previously opaque censoring process is much clearer – and knowledge of it is half the battle.
And as the Mamnou3 campaign itself shows, creative expression is alive and kicking in Lebanon – as are creative ways around the censors’ excisions.
Doreen Khoury is a program manager at the Beirut office of the Heinrich Boell Foundation. Her work focuses on electoral reform, censorship and social media. In September she will begin a fellowship at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin. This commentary first appeared at Sada, an online journal published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.