Study on censorship in Lebanon: law and practice
This study aims to provide a comprehensive assessment of censorship in Lebanon. The publishers hope “it will allow the many local artistic and cultural actors the opportunity to lobby for the most appropriate legislative amendments to the current censorship regulations which are currently not conducive to their work.”
The study provides an extended definition of censorship covering both prior censorship (i.e. that which occurs prior to screening or production as is the case with cinema films and theatre plays) and post censorship (exercised following publication or production as is the case with print periodicals). Special emphasis is placed on censorship exercised by state institutions. Self-censorship, though not uncommon, falls outside the scope of this study.
The study draws two conclusions:
– First, censorship of items following their publication or release attempts to strike a balance between public interest and personal dignity, in contrast to prior-censorship which is based on ambiguous provisions and consideration of political interest, regardless of public interest.
– Second, despite the existence of two different regulating authorities and sets of laws, both types of censorship are similar in severity, lack of accountability and thus harm public interest.
Concerning foreign political considerations, censorship is also sometimes based on Lebanon’s relations with friendly or enemy states, and usually depends on two matters: First, the extent to which the ruling regime of a foreign country is sensitive to criticism and accusations, and secondly possible ties that these countries have to local political groups.
The study raises two questions:
– First, the extent to which the legal constraints adequately restrict the actions of the censor within essential limits. The study demonstrates that the various institutions that implement censorship are not independent and lack the necessary qualifications and experience to do their work. Moreover, prior censorship does not allow individuals whose work has been censored to neither express their opinions or to defend themselves when necessary. Public discourse on censorship remains limited, as evidenced by the complete absence of any judicial review of censorship decisions as well as a considerable lack in legal information on the topic. For example, there is no written material on the abuse of power by General Security, whether in granting screening permits or replacing the administrative committee (consisting of the director of advertising and publishing as its president, four delegates from the ministries of foreign affairs, education, economy and social affairs, and a representative from General Security) which is exclusively empowered to grant permits or censor parts of films or plays. The fact that decisions are made in secret is also cause for concern, as the lack of justification offered for censoring material and the extent of the power of the censor.
– Second is the extent to which censorship impacts the public debate on social and human issues. Except for political periodicals and television stations which are exempted, censorship extends to important matters such as holding public officials accountable, dealing with the memory of the Civil War as well as other critical social issues, thus restricting free debate. Moreover, prior censorship which is exercised in secret and is applied without adequate legal justification (i.e. prima facie) generally prohibits social debate over the legitimacy of censorship.
On the other hand, censorship cases brought to court perhaps represent an important social opportunity to strike the most appropriate balance between freedom of expression and other values and interests.
Directorate General of General Security
Censorship controls over literary and artistic works and publications in Lebanon today fall under the jurisdiction of the Directorate General of General Security. According to certain laws (some of which date as far back as the French Mandate), General Security has been entrusted with the task of licensing, monitoring and censoring creative works. Within this domain, General Security enjoys a certain degree of autonomy and a certain margin within which to maneuver, allowing it to control when and how much freedom will be permitted, heightening or reducing restrictions according to the prevailing political circumstances and the dictates of the various political and religious powers and parties.
After years of troubled relations between the cultural movement in the country and the censorship authorities, perhaps the time has come to finally open an indepth and responsible debate on the structures, laws and institutions that permit the practice of censorship of literary and artistic works and publications in Lebanon.
“Marsad al-Raqaba (“The Censorship Observatory”), or “The movement for reviewing censorship laws in Lebanon” which includes several independent cultural organizations and individuals, is lobbying for a serious review of censorship laws and regulations. This endeavor seeks to strengthen and reinforce a climate of openness, free debate and citizenship, and to make culture less elitist, and thus an integral part of a citizen’s life. It is the right of any citizen to discover him or herself through creativity and to play a role in the discussion of current affairs.
The study was published by:
• The Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts, Ashkal Alwan
• Assabil, Friends of Public Libraries Association
• Beirut DC
• Metropolis Cinema
• Ne a Beyrouth
• Beirut Art Center
• UMAM Documentation and Research
• Zico House
• The Cultural Cooperative Association for Youth in Theater and Cinema “SHAMS”
• Pierre Abi-Saab – Al-Akhbar Newspaper
• Heinrich Böll Foundation – Middle East Office
• Goethe-Institute Libanon