BEIRUT: Regrettable as it is, it’s not really surprising that censorship of media, media activists and bloggers increases during periods of political tension. Less expected, perhaps, is the increase in incidents of cultural censorship.
“The alarming security situation in 2013 had a negative impact on media and cultural freedom in Lebanon,” writes Firas Talhouk in the SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom’s annual report on press and cultural freedom in the Levant.
Released last month, SKeyes’ report recorded official bans on three films, a play and a foreign publication in 2013; two additional acts of cultural censorship resulted from pressure from unofficial bodies.
These statistics may not seem particularly high – officers from General Security’s Censorship Bureau say they annually review roughly 300 films and plays for approval – but they display a marked increase from 2012, when several films were partially censored but no outright bans were issued.
“We always feel that there is some kind of parallel between political tensions and censorship in the country,” Skeyes executive director Ayman Mhanna tells The Daily Star. “In periods where things are okay, the number of censorship decisions decreases. In periods of tension, even when the movies have nothing to do with politics, there’s an increase. I can’t say it’s causality but there is definitely a relationship between the two.”
Lea Baroudi, co-founder and general coordinator of anti-censorship NGO March, whose online Virtual Museum of Censorship records incidents of cultural censorship since 1940, says she too has noticed the correlation. Incidents of cultural censorship, she notes, have been increasing since late 2010.
“There’s growing sectarian tension in the country and in the region,” she explains, “so I think this is affecting [censorship] – wrongly so, because art and culture are supposed to bring people together. They’re tools for peace, but they are being censored more because of these tensions ... [censors] are much more careful these days, especially when it comes to politics or religion.”
Officers at the Censorship Bureau deny any correlation between Lebanon’s political climate and increased censorship of cultural production. “Censorship does not tend to increase or decrease during any political or security situation,” said General Mounir Akiki, who has been in charge of the Censorship Bureau since 2011, “because it depends only on the laws and codes that govern censorship.”
The authority to make cuts to films, plays, music, art and books, and to ban them outright, Akiki explains, lies with the National Committee of Information, the Film Censorship Committee (which includes four ministerial representatives), the interior minister, the information minister and the attorney general.
General Security has the authority to recommend a course of action but, Akiki stressed, they don’t write the laws. They simply enforce existing censorship legislation – much of which dates from before or during the Civil War.
“The Censorship Bureau in General Security and all the censorship departments that work under its authority are law enforcement tools,” Akiki says, adding that their work includes imposing restrictions on “work that may be considered offensive or harmful to any of the heavenly religions, social or moral ethics and national security.”
The problem, Baroudi says, is that these guidelines are so poorly defined that they are open to interpretation.
“The law is so vague that it depends who’s in charge,” she explains. “What’s dangerous about that is that it offers no protection. If one day we have someone appointed who is even more closed-minded than the current guy – who at least cares about public opinion – he could ban everything.”
Mhanna explains that the frequency of bans depends on individual ministers as much as it does General Security officers, whose recommendations form the basis of the final decision.
“You have a real decrease not only when there is less political tension,” he adds, “but when you have ministers in power who are strong defenders of freedom of expression.”
In many cases, Baroudi and Mhanna say, the decision to ban a play, film or book may stem unofficially from General Security’s “expert” consultants, such as the heads of Lebanon’s religious institutions or political parties.
“Around April 2012 there was a meeting of the representatives of the various religious institutions in Lebanon,” Mhanna explains, “pledging to support each other. So whenever one religious institution wants a movie or a play banned ... all the others would stand firmly with them. They created this kind of lobby, this cartel of religious bodies trying to pressure cultural expression whenever it touches religion.
“General Security has a knee-jerk reaction. Whenever there is any movie with a remote connection to something religious it’s automatically forwarded to the religious institutions for consultation and General Security will very rarely contradict [their decision].”
Akiki tells The Daily Star religious authorities do not have the power to make decisions regarding censorship.
“The censorship departments do not take their orders from the heads of the Lebanese religious communities,” he says, “but they do consult some of them on certain occasions ... The final decision belongs to the Film Censorship Committee or the interior or information ministers.”
When it comes to local production, lawyer Nizar Saghieh, who co-authored the 2009 study “Censorship in Lebanon: Law and Practice,” laments the two-stage censorship process filmmakers must undergo. Before they can begin filming, they must submit the script to the Censorship Bureau and agree to any requested cuts or changes, he explains. Once finished, the film must be submitted to the censors a second time for screening permission.
“For us, these proceedings regarding censorship of scripts are not legal,” Saghieh says, “because there is no text. In matters of freedom you should interpret text in a very narrow way because the principle is freedom, and the limitation is exceptional. So when there is no text talking in an explicit way about scripts, you cannot use other texts in order to extend your power.”
Saghieh raised this issue while representing film director Danielle Arbid in a court case contesting the 2011 ban of “Beirut Hotel,” after she failed to implement General Security’s changes to her script during filming. Arbid lost the case. The lawyer admits the ruling was a blow, but says it’s crucial that artists continue to fight censorship.
“The more cases we bring [forward],” he says, “the more the judges are forced to think about freedom of expression, but if you keep silent ... things will stay as they are.”
Mhanna is convinced contesting bans in court is the best way to ensure progress. “Thinking of legislative changes is fine,” he says, “but we know full well the performance of our Parliament ... We think that if we take issues of cultural freedom to court there is a high chance to create a judicial precedent that will be the shield protecting cultural freedom in Lebanon.”
SKeyes, he continues, is willing to provide pro bono legal aid to artists wishing to go to court to protest bans of their work.
One positive development is that General Security is increasingly concerned with public opinion, Baroudi says, and willing to engage in dialogue with NGOs and the media. Mhanna notes that artists are also more willing to publicly announce when their work has been censored.
“The culture of not reporting [censorship] has decreased,” he explains. “The fear of General Security is not what it was back in the 1990s or early 2000s. You really feel that by making any problem public you might be able to put pressure on public authorities. ... It’s actually the only thing that has worked, in terms of pushing public authorities to adopt more open and liberal policies.”