Lebanon: Virtual museum winning censorship battles
The Virtual Museum of Censorship in Lebanon doesn’t just display censorship of the past, it also supports artists who have been subject to censorship, raises awareness about Lebanon’s censorship practices and advocates for changing the law while holding authorities accountable.
“Lebanon’s censorship practices and laws are outdated and the bureaucracy is complicated,” explains an activist from the online “museum” in this interview with Global Voices’ Thalia Rahme.
By Thalia Rahme
Two years after its launch, the Virtual Museum of Censorship in Lebanon is still documenting impediments of freedom of expression. Having followed the project since its early days, Global Voices interviews an activist from March Lebanon with the objective of shedding the light on the state of the museum now, as well as the state of censorship in a country considered to be one of the most liberal in the Middle East but which remains burdened by deep sectarian and other political troubles.
Global Voices: What is your source of information for censored works?
Virtual Museum of Censorship: “We check a variety of sources to verify whether or not a work is censored. Usually, we go through the providers: the bookstores, the movie theaters, the music stores. Through them, we check whether a work is available or has been partially censored. We also check newspaper archives. We got the authorization from newspapers such as Al Nahar, l’Orient, and Assafir to search their archives – since the first issue – for censorship-related news. We have also verified censored works through General Security and other censoring bodies in Lebanon.”
Have you received threats, warnings, or pressure? If yes how are you dealing with it?
“We received pressure with regards to the play against censorship we did. We decided not to be intimidated by it, so we fought back and won (by pepa). As for the museum, many people tried to discredit us. Newspapers and blogs close to General Security accused us of being pro-Israeli, promoting Israeli interests, and even being a front for some businessmen with hidden agendas. Obviously the claims are ridiculous and entirely without foundation. They didn’t affect us at all.”
Is the website hosted in and can be accessed from Lebanon?
“Yes, our website is hosted in Lebanon and is accessible to the Lebanese population.”
Have you heard of similar projects outside Lebanon? There is one in particular called the ‘Museum of Thought Crimes’ in Turkey?
“We haven’t heard of other projects, but we ourselves are planning to create a Museum of Censorship for other countries in our region. We’ve received interest from people in Egypt and Iran, and we’re in talks to develop partnerships to make that happen. Ideally, we’d have a museum for each country in the region. We really support all other initiatives to document, with as much information as possible, cases of censorship of freedom of expression. It’s important that censorship doesn’t become the norm. It’s important that we don’t get used to it. Our Museum of Censorship aims to be a resource for Lebanese to know how much we’re being prevented from seeing, hearing, and speaking. We encourage other similar initiatives around the world to do the same!”
If the general public does get ahold of these banned books, movies or articles from outside Lebanon, are we putting ourselves at risk?
“It depends on what you mean by ‘at risk’. If you’re looking at it from a legal perspective, according to the current laws in Lebanon, then yes – you would be at risk of legal repercussions for bringing in banned works into Lebanon. To be clear, this is not an endorsement of those laws by any means. If you individually purchase an item outside of Lebanon and bring it in your suitcase, General Security usually turns a blind eye on this.”
Screenshot from March Lebanon homepage. The Arabic reads as follows: Don’t fear freedom, fear for it
Why does it sometimes take a while for a work to be banned? For example, the book ‘After Zionism: One state for Israel and One state for Palestine’ by Ahmed Moor was banned about 10 months after its release in Lebanon.
“This goes back to the inconsistencies in Lebanon’s censorship practices. Laws are outdated and the bureaucracy is complicated. Books and other works have often been censored years after their release. This is by no means an efficient process.”
Has censorship been lifted on any of the banned works, especially recently? ‘Anne Frank’? ‘Persepolis’?
“Yes, many times. A book, DVD, music CD, or other form of art can be banned at one point and allowed the next. It’s important to remember that different forms of art or expression are subject to different kinds of censorship. For example, important books, movies, and CDs are subject to censorship every time they cross through customs, with no clear criteria in mind.”
In your listings, sometimes the Censoring Entity field is empty. Why is that?
“Because of Lebanon’s archaic and convoluted censorship practices, it can be difficult at times to verify exactly which body has censored a work. On our site, we aim to be as specific as we can, but it’s important to remember that this isn’t a transparent process.”
The project gets its information through crowd-sourcing. Do you verify entries submitted by the the public?
“Yes, we do. We verify with the providers – bookstores, movie theaters, music stores, and others – to check whether a work has been partially or fully banned. We continue to update the site to provide as much specific and accurate information as possible.”
How are you promoting the project? Two years after the launch, what is the state of the project? Are there any plans to take the documentation to the next level like advocacy work and lobbying?
“Our site has become a major resource for people seeking to learn about censorship in Lebanon, including artists, writers, journalists, human rights organisations, international embassies, and of course, Lebanese themselves. Our project has grown exponentially in the last two years, and we’re proud of the work we’ve done. Nevertheless, the Museum is only part of the work that MARCH does. We continue to fight the battle against censorship by supporting artists who have been subject to censorship, hosting activities on university campuses, working with other non-governmental organisations on changing the law, and raising awareness in the media about Lebanon’s censorship practices.”
There are some uncensored materials in Lebanon which one would assume would be censored – like a book I’ve seen about Marilyn Manson saying he will put his hash on the Bible, or something like that. How do you think they made it under the eyes of the censor?
“Again, this has to do with the inconsistencies of Lebanon’s censorship practices. Censoring authorities often just glance at the front cover of a book to decide whether or not it will be banned. The censorship process can be very arbitrary – a book gets banned for including a certain topic, and another book on the same topic doesn’t get banned.”
Are you against censorship in full? What about works inciting hatred or killings?
“Hate speech is not considered free expression, as it is inciting to stop the freedom of other people through the intention of harming them. This is something that is applied in Europe, for example. Hate speech is punishable by law, and we agree with that. But our censorship process is not here to protect us from hate speech. It is all about taboos (religion, politics, sex etc.) that should not be there in the first place in order to have a free open-minded and tolerant society. The only censorship that we promote, which actually does not exist yet in Lebanon, is on content for children. A rating system should be applied for that.”
Did the events in Syria have an impact on the state of censorship?
“Actually censorship has been less active with the increased political problems. Hopefully, censorship authorities realised that there are much more important issues to focus on.”
A screenshot of the Virtual Museum of Censorship’s homepage
How has the project changed since it began? Has the direction of the project changed? Is it fulfilling its goals? How are people reacting to it? Have a lot of people been engaging with it? More or less than expected? What are some things you learned from doing this project?
“Because censorship in Lebanon is a continually changing and developing issue, MARCH’s projects continue to develop, too. The mission of the Museum of Censorship hasn’t changed, but we continue to come up with creative ways to get the most accurate information on censored works in Lebanon. It’s been difficult to compile information because of a lack of transparency and proper resources, and because works are censored one minute and uncensored the next. We do believe we are fulfilling our goals, but again, those goals keep developing in accordance with the state of censorship in Lebanon. We are happy that people can now hold authorities accountable, which we believe has forced authorities to think twice before censoring. We are winning censorship battles, but the war for freedom of expression is a long one. We’ve learned many lessons along the way and are excited to continue our work for years to come!”
This story was commissioned by Freemuse, the leading defender of musicians worldwide and Global Voices for Artsfreedom.org. It was funded by a grant from CKU. The article may be republished by non-commercial media, crediting the author Thalia Rahme, Freemuse and Global Voices and linking to the origin.
Photo on top of this page: The online reader’s ‘ticket’ to enter the Virtual Museum of Censorship in Lebanon