BEIRUT: Lebanese director Charbel Khalil told The Daily Star Sunday that he would not apologize for impersonating Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah and Prophet Jonah in an episode of his comedy show. “I will not apologize,” Khalil said. “We are continuing with our work, and this issue is behind us now.”
After tuning in to the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation International’s satirical show “Basmat Watan” – a play on words in Arabic meaning both “smiles of a nation” and “death of a nation” – over the weekend, a number of Hezbollah supporters took to the streets in Beirut and Baalbek to protest the comical impersonation of the party’s secretary-general.
Others in Tripoli also protested over the impersonation of the Prophet Jonah.
But the show’s director, Charbel Khalil, challenged his critics and said he would not apologize for the episode.
“Apologizing is not possible because what would I be apologizing for?” Khalil told LBCI Saturday night, a day after the episode, which airs on the local television channel, raised tensions.
“I will continue with my show but not for the sake of provoking [anyone],” he added.
Khalil told The Daily Star Sunday that an objective media outlet had the right to criticize and satirize any political and religious figure.
“[The show] has impersonated every religious figure, it does not mean I have reservations against anyone,” he said. “I respect them all.”
He added: “The impersonation of religious figures has become a regular thing in Lebanon.”
Protesters blocked roads and burned tires in Beirut’s Sin al-Fil as others demonstrated in front of the Baalbek Serail Friday. Others blocked the international highway in Tripoli and gathered at the Abu Ali roundabout.
Members of the Association of Muslim Scholars also gathered in Nour Square in the northern city Sunday to protest the show, carrying banners that read: “Religion and its rituals are a red line.”
The association, as well as the party Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya, said the show aimed to incite sectarian strife in the country and called for its cancellation.
Ahmad Hazim, spokesman for the association, said that the show should be boycotted.
“We call on those concerned in the country, including our parents and students, to boycott the program and the station, that could be the start of a response which could escalate if the concerned station does not apologize,” Hazim said.
Friday’s show aired two separate segments with actor Jean Boujedoun impersonating Nasrallah, wearing his trademark black turban and sporting a similar beard. The other segment showed another actor impersonating the Prophet Jonah.
In response to the episode, Dar al-Fatwa in the northern region of Akkar issued a statement asking Charbel Khalil to apologize for impersonating the Prophet Jonah.
“A man’s freedom ends when it infringes on another man’s freedom,” Dar al-Fatwa said in a statement.
A delegation of media professionals are also set to visit the head of the Audiovisual Media Council, Abdul-Hadi Mahfoud, Monday and present him with a petition calling to end programming that might harm religious figures.
In 2006, “Basmat Watan” impersonated Nasrallah, prompting violent protests in Beirut and other parts of the country. Khalil then apologized for the sketch, saying it was not meant to insult the Hezbollah leader.
“It was different then, there were injuries during the protests, and there was a war going on,” Khalil told The Daily Star. “I will not apologize now.”
Hezbollah supporters lashed out at Khalil and LBCI on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter and also called for the cancellation of the show.
Participants of a group on Facebook called “Stop Charbel Khalil” went so far as to call for “Death to Charbel Khalil.”
A tweet from an angry citizen read, “Haven’t you learned, Charbel Khalil, from the first time?”
Some stood in solidarity with Khalil, claiming that the show was a satire and protesters were making a mountain out of a molehill. Some called Khalil brave.
“People in Lebanon should begin to get used to protests and stupid insults, they will not work and will not scare anyone, if anything they garner more attention,” one tweet translated from Arabic read.
Some Twitter postings joked that the incident united rivals in Tripoli and the southern suburbs of Beirut against Khalil.
Pierre al-Daher, chairman of LBCI, reiterated to The Daily Star Sunday that neither the broadcaster nor Khalil would apologize for Friday’s program.
When asked if another Nasrallah impersonation could happen in the future, Daher replied, “Why not?”
“There is an issue, and I don’t know who put that idea in people’s mind, that there are some people who cannot be criticized,” he said, adding that “it was media’s right” to impersonate and satirize whomever it wanted.
Media analyst Sarah el-Rishani told The Daily Star that while the impersonation was completely legitimate as Nasrallah is a key political actor, the reaction was disproportionate, albeit expected.
“It is expected that there be some disgruntlement,” Rishani said.
“We’ve seen it before, but the fear of offending people should not stifle free expression.”
Rishani also said that the program’s ratings spiked and hits online to view the episode had increased because of the protests.
“[The show] got more clicks which defeats [the protesters’] purpose. It is an interesting paradox,” she said.
According to Rishani, if the show were to be canceled, it would be a step backward for Lebanese media and freedom of expression. The show was taken off the air for a few months back in 2006 for similar reasons. She said “the timing of the episode should be questioned,” adding that it might have been intentional and the reactions expected.
Rishani also said that while it was too early to tell, there was a very large possibility the show would not be taken off the air, at least not at the moment.
“Luckily, the system [in Lebanon] is chaotic leading to de-facto liberalism and freedom,” she said.
With a caretaker government in place, deteriorating security, and increasing concern over the conflict in neighboring Syria and the large number of refugees, the television program is clearly not on the top of the agenda.
Rishani said the sensitivity of the issue was heightened because of the prominence of the channel that aired it.
“LBCI is a leading channel, no one wants to alienate it, not even Hezbollah,” she said. “They need LBCI, it has the largest audience in Lebanon.”
She added there was no telling what the reactions would be this coming week.
“Let’s see how this plays out,” she said. “Right now there is no government and this is a minor incident but Charbel Khalil may have to apologize.”