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    Beyond the Headlines: How Censorship in Lebanon Works (Part 1)

    The recent ban on Lady Gaga’s album is the latest episode in the ongoing controversy of Lebanon’s censorship system; we all remember the banning of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (film and book), and the near ban of Marjam Satrapi’s Persepolis, and other high profile locally made documentaries such as Simon Habre’s One Man Village (which had 5 minutes cut from it – General Security claimed that the scene upset sectarian sensitivities) and Mohamad Ali Atassi’s Waiting for Nasser Hamid Abi Zayd (saved by the timely intervention of Minister of Information Tarek Mitri). There has been a lot of media focus on the banning of big foreign films and the occasional banning or attempted banning of local films, but what goes unnoticed is that local film production is being seriously hindered by stringent censorship regulations imposed by General Security. This undoubtedly drives away creative talent, in a country which prides itself on being a major centre of creative freedoms in the region.

    But how does censorship actually work in Lebanon? Is there a law which General Security applies when it decides to ban films or chop scenes? A recent study on Lebanese censorship systems by lawyer Nizar Saghieh, commissioned by the major cultural organizations in Lebanon (such as Metropolis DC, Ashkal Alwan, Né à Beyrouth, Umam D&R, etc.), exposes the often arbitrary and legally dubious nature of censorship in Lebanon. One of the main findings is that most of General Security’s censorship regulations are not based on any existing legal texts, and that the internal administrative protocols it applies are without any legal basis.

    Feature films, documentaries and plays undergo censorship at three stages: pre-production (General Security has to approve the script, or request changes); screening (General Security has to approve the final product or request cuts); import and distribution (General Security either allows films in, restricts viewings, cuts scenes or confiscates creative works all together, as happened with Lady Gaga’s album). At each stage, General Security issues a permit to the producer or director if it considers that the film or play (or music album) complies with the (arbitrary) conditions it sets.

    Lebanese film-makers and creative artists complain the most about the sometimes impossible demands that General Security makes during the first and second stages outlined above. During the pre-production phase additional permits from other state institutions (e.g. the Police, the Army, district governors, mayors, and even Solidere) are requested, as well as signing statements promising not to “upset sectarian or religious beliefs” and “preserving public morals” (there are no guidelines of course on how this is interpreted), etc.  Directors also have to ask for permission to film from unofficial authorities such as certain political parties (who often demand to accompany the film crew and view the footage). During the screening permit process, films have to comply with vague conditions such “preserving the reputation of state authorities” and “resisting claims that are unfavorable to Lebanese interests” (again there are no guidelines on how General Security interprets this).  This process is the most controversial, because General Security, as a matter of routine, automatically sends films or any other creative works which it thinks might upset religious institutions or political figures to these bodies, and almost always complies with their wishes on whether to cut scenes or ban the work altogether. Thus in the case of Lady Gaga’s CD, General Security acted on the wishes of the Catholic Information Centre, despite the fact that the centre has no official capacity and General Security clearly violates an already flimsy law when it makes such a move (in the case of Waiting for Nasser Hamid Abi Zeid the film was sent to Dar al Fatwa, the highest Sunni religious body – the film was eventually allowed to screen).

    So the next question is: what is actually censored? And according to what criteria? Stayed tuned for Part 2 of this post, coming soon this week.

    [Nizar Saghieh’s report on censorship systems in Lebanon will be available soon online – we’ll keep you posted].

    UPDATE (08/06/11): It’s being reported today that General Security hasn’t actually decided whether to ban the Lady Gaga’s Born this Way or not. This unfortunately doesn’t make the situation any better. Comments by the director of the Catholic Information Centre (CIC), Father Abdo Abu Kassm, indicate that the centre does not seem to be aware that it has no legal right to advise on the banning of creative works  according to its own judgement. He says, for example: “I want to see the CD with a music specialist who is a friend of the center. Then I will make my decision… If they are going to offend us we are going to cancel the album,” Abu Kassm was quoted as saying. “We will not accept that anyone insult the Virgin Mary or Jesus or Christianity …  Call us traditional, call us backward, call us whatever you want. We will not accept it.”  With all due respect to the CIC, neither it or General Security have the right to decide on the behalf of citizens whether they should listen to a CD or not (you can go to Youtube and judge for yourself if ‘Judas’ by Lady Gaga offends you or not). In the spirit of freedom of expression, religious institutions have the right to caution people on what cultural products to consume or not, but not to actually ban them, especially when there are no laws to cover such actions.  More on this soon – as promised, we’ll be posting more information on the censorship mess in Lebanon.

    5 responses to “Beyond the Headlines: How Censorship in Lebanon Works (Part 1)”

    1. ahmad hammoud says:

      ana 3am 7aiwil e7ki ma3 msbah baik wmch 3am 22dour.kif baddi e7ki

    2. cmg says:

      I want to see this protest: All Lebanese take to the streets in their cars blasting the Gaga album at the same time. You know it’s still readily availble.

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