BEIRUT: From all the contradictions that Lebanon is fraught with – the land of Hezbollah, Nadine Labaki and Amin Maalouf, at the same time – there is one that always stands unchallenged in the mind of the Arab world: That of Lebanon as an oasis of freedom in the Middle East, with a climate of relative openness and some degree of cultural and political freedoms, guaranteed by law. While there is some truth to that statement, the reality on the ground is that the Lebanese have fought bitter battles for these freedoms and still are.
At first sight it does seem that Lebanon has enjoyed wider freedoms than the rest of the Arab world since the end of the Civil War and the limited cultural renaissance that followed afterwards. What follows from here is a very complex network of policies, influences and political maneuvering that translate into a hapless censorship bureaucracy; one that has failed to grasp not only the wide array of changes experienced by Lebanese society but also the transformation of media and cultural production in the age of the Internet.
Censorship in the times of Arab Spring has proven an increasingly difficult task for every country in the region, from Morocco to Bahrain, and Lebanon – culturally at the forefront but politically so far behind these changes – has not been exempt. The annual report for 2011, “Press and Cultural Freedom: In Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Palestine” by the Samir Kassir Foundation has shown the trends at work here: Physical assaults on journalists by non-actors, increasing censorship in the film industry and attempts to regulate Internet content.
Two important factors must be taken into account here: First, unlike it is the case of other countries in the region, the Lebanese are very aware about censorship practices in the country and accordingly, have attempted to tackle them or demonstrate against them when necessary. Second, the structure of the censorship bureaucracy deserves further consideration, as we are not dealing here with an organized body with a fixed set of policies and principles.
Nevertheless, as the Samir Kassir Foundation has noted: “The year 2011 was undoubtedly one of the worst for press and cultural freedom in the region.” In regard to Lebanon they also added: “In Lebanon, it is time to take bold and effective measures to combat censorship by non-state actors to impose their cultural standards on all Lebanese people.” A comprehensive study, “Censorship in Lebanon: Law and Practice” available from the Heinrich Boell Foundation and edited by Doreen Khoury, provides acute insights into the censorship bureaucracy.
In this study, the authors have gone very far in showing how censorship – of films, film screening, theater plays, publications and to some degree also TV – imposed by the Directorate General of General Security in order to prevent the distribution of material that would endanger security, upset national sentiment, damage public morals or incite sectarian tensions, is carried out without much legal precedent and on the basis of arbitrary – and rather fluctuating – arguments that lack general guiding principles.
Though the argument goes that censorship is necessary for the protection for national security, it is often not the relevant authorities but rather religious institutions, political parties and even private companies who are to have a say on what is supposed to be censored or not. For an example, one needs only to recall that Marc Abi Rached’s 2009 film was banned last minute and short of its release, even though it had received all the permits – another near impossible task in Lebanon – and the industry rumors said that it had to do not so much with the content as with the role of actress Joana Andraos, who happens to be the daughter of a prominent Lebanese politician.
Similar incidents took place in 2011 when Danielle Arbid’s film “Beirut Hotel” was banned apparently because it mentions Hariri’s assassination, and a few scenes – in this case, regarding homosexuality and religion – were cut off from Samer Daboul’s film “Out Loud” that was eventually completed, but it has not been screened much in Lebanon although it debuted on the international scene in various festivals. In the meantime, the commonplace scenario of violence and incitement daily on TV seems to be of no interest to the authorities.
It is this Lebanon precisely that is welcoming today the appearance and first chapter of “Mamnou3!” (Forbidden); a new Lebanese web-series, which caused uproar among bloggers and social media in Lebanon when its trailer was released on June 25th. The idea behind the series, of which there are already several filmed episodes, to air on YouTube every week since July 1st, is to tackle the thorny issue of censorship of cultural productions inside the most infamous bureau, with a slant of comedy and parody.
Broadcasting series on YouTube isn’t exactly a novelty in the Middle East, with now more or less celebrated products such as the famous “Mal3obl3na” documentary series that earned producer and blogger Feras Bagna and others time in jail when they aired a chapter about poverty in Saudi Arabia, and the series “Takki” of Saudi filmmaker Mohammed Makki, dealing with topics of social life and relationships and that reached 700,000 hits within one month, mostly from people in the theaterless kingdom.
Creative ways to bypass censorship not only exist but are increasingly mastered and improved upon by bloggers, artists and activists in the Arab world, and slowly, eroding the traditional function of the censorship bureau.
In 2011, philosopher Agnes Heller reacted to the tight media laws in her native Hungary saying what could be perfectly applied to Lebanon and the Middle East: “Nowadays you can have a server in another country and you cannot censor Internet production if the server is in another country. Some people organize a so-called ‘samizdat’ television station on the Internet and asked me to participate. So the technology is above it. In the classical style of the Soviet Union, technology allowed that everything could be supervised. Now not everything can be supervised.”
An original idea of Democratic Renewal’s (Tajaddod) Nadim Lahoud and sponsored by the Samir Kassir Foundation, the series aims – in the words of Ayman Mehanna, director of SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom – not to denounce the censorship bureau as much as to invite to abandon principles that are not longer relevant and he adds that the project of course, is another tool to combat censorship. The storyline, written by Camille Salame, relies on real examples in order to allow the public to judge the absurdities inherent in censorship.
Ziyad Makhoul writes yesterday for Francophone daily L’Orient Le Jour: “Or like dynamite on vitriol, on that which Lebanon has sadly mastered better than any banana republic in the world: Censorship. Based on a brilliant idea of Nadim Lahoud, helped by the eagle eye of Ayman Mehanna, the storyline scalpel of Camille Salame and the sensational Paul Matar as the bigger than life Jamil el-Sayyed, Mamnou3 is infinitely stronger than the abduction of any Israeli soldier, than all the threats of Zelzal missiles to Tel Aviv in the world, than one hundred and one hypocrites and the rancid promises of change and reform.”
While eyes are on Lebanon, with the sit-in of Sheikh Ahmad el-Assir in Sidon – the infamous epicenter from where the Civil War spread back in 1970’s – that resembles more one of the famous summer parties along Lebanon’s beaches, the regional stagnation in Syria and the renewed political instability in the country that has nothing political about it, some people are still at work in giving Lebanon the tools to truly resist and defend itself, tools that no weapons and no missiles can destroy. Mamnou3 and the team behind it is one example of resistance, not by resisting reality, but by trying to give people the tools to transform it.