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    Hush if It’s about Nasrallah?

    The sketch is quite harmless,” states actress Patricia Dagher, referring to General Security’s decision to cut a five-minute-long scene dubbed Hassan from the play Bikaffe, which means enough in Lebanese.

    The skit itself is part of the Erbet Tenhal comedy program, a series that tackles social and political issues in the region under a critical but humorous light and that airs every Wednesday on New TV.

    I really do not know why it has been turned into a problem,” said Dagher during a phone call with NOW Extra, as she described the scene at stake. “The skit shows its four main protagonists, all Shia, discussing politics. They ask each other a number of fairly innocent questions… For example, [one would ask the others to] name a president whose name starts with the letter ‘n,’ to which they respond ‘Nasrallah,’ or name a president whose name starts with the letter ‘s’, and they answer ‘Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah’,” explains Dagher.

    Basically, every time they are asked a question, they find a way to name Nasrallah, except for one query about someone who is using his weapons to frighten people, to which the characters answer ‘Hakim’,” she says, referring to Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea. But according to Dagher, the play is replete with many thornier references.

    Evidently, General Security does not agree; and when head of the production company Elie Feghaly tried to find some answers as to why the skit was censored, officials said the scene could affect the country’s national security.

    We think it is more about having included Nasrallah,” states Dagher, adding, “But they are really [small-minded], because most of our spectators are Shia and none of the content attacks Nasrallah,” she said. “But I guess most people usually do not mention him so explicitly.”

    The most puzzling part of it all is that the script writers themselves are Shia, said Saad Kiwan, director of the Samir Kassir Eyes foundation, which reported on the issue. He too feels the bulk of the problem might be the mere citing of Nasrallah, although he reckons General Security censors content from movies and plays regardless of the politician or political content. In fact, the body has been responsible for a series of censorships during the latest film festival season, many of which were not necessarily linked to Hezbollah or the political party’s leader. In addition, General Security is not alone in its censoring acts, says Kiwan. “Censorship requests and fiery reactions take place from all of the country’s various political and religious figures.”

    Indeed, last month, Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya and Hezobllah condemned an episode of Kalam al-Nass, a political talk show that airs on LBCI television, for including a discussion between different political and sectarian figures about escalated tension in the country. The two parties claimed that the TV station intended to provoke civil strife. Similarly, during Ramadan, flaming reactions from the Maronite Church led to the suspension of The Messiah, an Iranian-produced TV series depicting the life of Jesus as known to Muslims.

    But Feghaly, who was initially upset about having to cut out the scene, tells NOW Extra that even though “they have no right to do this,” he ultimately accepted to maintain the performance. Bikaffe producer Gilbert Daw, in turn, says that the scene remains to be extremely important and that its cancelation was a big loss.

    The censorship comes in tandem with Reporters without Borders’ recent publishing of the Press Freedom Index 2010 according to which Lebanon plunged 17 spots. Kiwan attributes the drop to a number of factors, including the mass firing of journalists at LBCI TV and An-Nahar newspaper.

    Even though much of the problem was related to financial constraints, there are other ways of restructuring,” he said. There is also the net and the rising problem posed by bloggers, something that really complicates the situation, adds Kiwan, noting the incident that landed the Facebook 3 in prison for allegedly defaming the president. Coincidentally, just yesterday, The New York Times featured a story about the recent crackdown on the Internet.

    As for Daw, he says General Security is afraid that any form of controversial material will bring about havoc. “They are afraid of everything, because, in Lebanon, we live in a [place] where opponents are waiting for the next opportunity to pounce at each other.” He insists that his production team includes members from different religious sects and different backgrounds. “Tomorrow, we will be showing the play to members from General Security… I have to, because it’s very important to us,” adds Daw.

    Kiwan agrees. Ultimately, the problem of censorship and freedom of expression is universally contentious in Lebanon, he says. “Perhaps things are worse when it comes to something that mentions Hezbollah or Nasrallah, but I am not sure.”

    Aline SARA
    NOW Lebanon

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