Last Updated: Sun Jul 15, 2012 15:07 pm (KSA) 12:07 pm (GMT)

Artists in Lebanon fear censorship will stifle expression

Danielle Arbid’s film “Beirut Hotel” which was originally scheduled for release in Lebanon in January, was banned which prompted the dejected filmmaker to leave for France.  (Photo courtesy Danielle Arbid)
Danielle Arbid’s film “Beirut Hotel” which was originally scheduled for release in Lebanon in January, was banned which prompted the dejected filmmaker to leave for France. (Photo courtesy Danielle Arbid)

Danielle Arbid, a Lebanese filmmaker who recently moved to France, joined a growing numbers of artists, businessmen and investors who left Lebanon fearing the rise in extremism.

Arbid’s film “Beirut Hotel” was banned on the grounds of national security for mentioning former premier Rafiq Hariri’s assassination while ignoring the explicit sex scenes in the film. The scene which concerned the censors referred to a fictional USB with documents about the 2005 assassination. As a result, it was redirected to Lebanon’s internal intelligence agency, which demanded the USB from the film’s producer. This was Arbid’s third consecutive feature film to be banned.

“Nothing works in this country except the censorship bureau,” Arbid told the New York Times.

Since the formation of the new government, which is closely affiliated with Hezbollah and the Syrian regime, censorship has been on the rise. This jeopardizes Lebanon’s place as one of the region’s most liberal country in terms of freedom of expression, which is dearly valued by artists and intellectuals.

Lebanese liberals are overshadowed and challenged by extremism with Shiite Islamists, Salafi mullahs in Sidon, and al- Qaeda in Tripoli.

The Samir Kassir Foundation, named in honor of a Lebanese journalist who was assassinated shortly after Hariri, is a group that has been fighting for freedom of expression. Ayman Mhanna, the foundation’s executive director, expressed concern about the current situation, especially since different Lebanese religious parties all agree on censorship, with the majority of complaints being filed by churches.

Producer Nadim Lahoud decided to address the issue through a weekly dramatic series called “Mamnou3” (Arabic for forbidden). The mockumentary depicts a 1970s version of the censorship bureau. The series, which airs online and is promoted by social media networks, is financed by E.U. grant money provided through the Samir Kassir Foundation.

Other victims of censorship include the movie “The Da Vinci Code” and the American TV series “The West Wing”, the former for advocating anti-Christian ideologies and the latter for discrimination against Arabs.
This is not just limited to art. In 2009, American film director Francis Ford Coppola’s private jet was refused landing in Beirut because the plane’s engine included parts made in Israel. Coppola had to land in Damascus and manage his way back to Lebanon.

The fact that the military actions ended does not mean that the Lebanese civil war is over, said Al-Nahar columnist Sarkis Naoum. Disputes among different ministries have affected businesses and cultural communities alike.

For instance, Lebanon’s internet speed is reportedly among the slowest in the world. Phone services are equally inefficient and expensive. “Slow internet service is one of the fundamental impediments to freedom of expression,” Mhanna told the New York Times.

Lebanon survived a 15-year grueling civil war from 1975-1990 that drained the country from its old status of being the regional business hub and the crossroads between the East and the West. It lacked prosperity, which is essential to developing and sustaining freedom of expression.

The situation further deteriorated with the new government’s decision not to cooperate with the U.N., which indicted Hezbollah with Hariri’s assassination after holding a special tribunal.

Nearby countries like the UAE and Qatar seemed like better alternatives to many Lebanese citizens. Even branches of prominent Western educational institutes who are seeking to open branches in the region started targeting the Gulf States as the safer parts of the region.

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