Ban it, bin it, close it: Lebanon and the growing climate of censorship

Advocates of the boycott say it is necessary to resist against normalising relations with Israel.
Sunday 11/02/2018
A man walks past a poster promoting the movie “Wonder Woman” at a cinema in downtown Beirut, last May. (AP)
Who decides? A man walks past a poster promoting the movie “Wonder Woman” in Beirut. (AP)

A heated debate is under way in Lebanon that is expressing itself on television and social media. At issue is what the Lebanese can see, listen to and read. In other words, a return to censorship.

The debate involves calls to shun all artistic and literary material that remotely involves Israel.

Advocates of the boycott are supporters of the Iran-backed Hezbollah. They insist it is an act of patriotism necessary to establish a “culture of resistance” against normalising relations with the Jewish state.

Its opponents argue the boycott conceals an attempt to impose bygone norms on the Lebanese, with the aim of moulding Lebanese culture according to that of Iran.

Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah recently demanded that Lebanon’s censorship board, which was created in 1955 and was revived recently, must ban the film “The Post,” even though the movie has nothing to do with the Palestinian conflict. The reason, said Nasrallah, was that its director, Steven Spielberg, donated $1 million to the Jewish state during the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah.

The movie was banned but an intervention by Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri reversed the decision and allowed the film to play in theatres.

Hariri, however, could not reverse a decision to ban other films. Last year, the censorship board banned “Wonder Woman” from cinemas because an Israeli actress plays the lead role. Last month, Franco-Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri was arrested in Beirut and accused of violating Lebanese laws that boycott Israel. He had travelled there using his French citizenship to shoot a film on the Palestinian issue. The film, “The Attack,” was banned in Lebanon.

Doueiri was subjected to a ruthless campaign by Hezbollah’s media when another of his films, “The Insult,” made it to the short list of the Academy Awards’ nominations for foreign language movies. It was the first Lebanese film to be so honoured.

Interestingly, the campaign to impose censorship is limited to political issues while it is tolerant towards sexually explicit material as well as issues regarding homosexuality.

Accusations of treachery are made against anyone who defies the call for the return to censorship. Doueiri’s critics claim his film only made it thus far because its Lebanese director “betrayed the cause and denounced Palestine to the Jewish organisers of the Oscar.” Doueiri denies such accusations.

During the 1950s and 1960s, literally, any material that mentioned Israel was subject to censorship. Any foreign media that featured articles about Israel was censored. That eased during the 1975-90 civil war when many government functions broke down.

The issue now is how to accommodate a return to censorship with the rapid advances in the means of communication. Advocates of the film boycott suggest a strange compromise: They would permit the sale of pirated copies of prohibited movies to the public while banning the films from movie theatres. The compromise makes no mention of written material. Such a concession shows the virtual impossibility of a return to the boycott that existed before the civil war.

The issue is gaining momentum as parliamentary elections, which are scheduled for May 6, approach. The question of cultural freedom is likely to be among the major issues that will decide their outcome.