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Censorship and the arts: should forbidding be forbidden?

Culture
Lebanon

I forbid it! A still from mockumentary Mamnou3!.

Courtesy of Mamnou3!

Prologue

In an office where the red stamp reigns and a single ‘wrong’ line can condemn an artistic work, the Colonel asks his most zealous employee: ‘What do you have today, Lamia?’ ‘A play and some foreign movies, [which] need to be changed, amended or banned,’ she replies. Her colleague is ‘busy’ playing Solitaire on his computer, while another colleague kicks out at someone applying for permission to make a film because he does not have the correct number of copies of his documents. The camera shakes as if to reflect the blurry conditions under which this institution operates.

Meet the censors... a still from Mamnou3!

courtesy of Mamnou3!

This is Lebanon’s Censorship Bureau, as seen by the creators of Mamnou3! (‘Prohibited’ in Arabic), a mockumentary-style web series which aims to popularize the fight for cultural freedom in Lebanon. ‘By highlighting the absurdity of state censorship, the series invites the citizen to ask the following question: By whom, why and by what authority is censorship carried out in the Lebanese state?’ says Nadim Lahoud, the series creator. That’s the essence of Mamnou3!: rather than protesting against individual censorship decisions, it challenges the very institution of censorship in the 21st century.

Scene 1: Going down

But what is there to challenge in a country which, we’re often told, is the region’s ‘oasis of freedom’? This year, Reporters Without Borders ranked Lebanon 93rd (out of 179) in its annual World Press Freedom Index. In 2002, when the Index started, the country was 56th. The 2011 report on press freedom in the Levant published by SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom identified three main downward trends:

1) physical assaults on journalists (more than 50 cases were recorded in Lebanon in 2011) 2) attempts to regulate content online 3) increasing censorship in the film industry.

The draft law to impose state control on the internet was eventually shelved following a massive public outcry, but the anti-censorship front cannot afford a break: as Lebanese filmmaker Danielle Arbid, whose film Beirut Hotel was banned in Lebanon, put it, ‘Nothing works in this country except the censorship bureau.’

Censorship of artistic and literary works falls under the jurisdiction of the Directorate General of General Security. Busy as a beehive, it banned 10 films in 2011 and five this year to date, according to SKeyes Center, including De Gaulle Eid’s documentary about the Lebanese Civil War, Chou Sar? (What Happened?) and Hana Makhmalbaf’s Green Days about the opposition protests in Iran in 2009. The authorities also didn’t want the outspoken Syrian poet Faraj Bayrakdar’s memoirs of his prison years – The Betrayals of Language and Silence – to be exported; nor did they like journalist Rabih Shantaf asking ‘inappropriate questions’ at the Ministry of Energy and Water, telling him to stay away.

Lebanon’s censorship body is ‘as transparent as a block of lead’

Censorship is also imposed by non-state actors. Lebanon’s commercial carrier MEA, for example, banned Al-Akhbar newspaper from its aeroplanes (a decision later deemed illegal by a judge). And threats by religious extremists to the music band LMFAO led to them cancelling their Beirut gig.

This recent increase in censorship is politics-related, says Ayman Mhanna, executive director of SKeyes Center. First, the change in government: whereas the previous Cabinet had ministers with connections to civil society organizations who pulled their weight to reverse censorship decisions, the new Cabinet doesn’t consider this issue a priority. ‘The current ministers of culture, information and the interior do not seem particularly interested in confronting the censorship body,’ Mhanna says. ‘When there is a situation of political calm, there aren’t lots of censorship decisions. Whereas in periods of political tension and political divide […] there’s an increase in decisions to censor movies and plays.’

Lebanon’s censorship body is ‘as transparent as a block of lead’, Lahoud says. ‘The reasons they give for their decisions are so vague and cryptic that they are risible. “Threatens civil peace” is a common one. How a roll of film can threaten civil peace is anyone’s guess.’ If censors decide to justify their decisions (which they conveniently don’t have to do), they simply list their remarks without accepting any discussions or negotiations, according to the authors of Censorship in Lebanon: Law and Practice, the first comprehensive study of Lebanon’s state censorship. It’s enough to state that a film ‘encourages sodomy’ or is ‘immoral’ without presenting any justification.

Red ink and rubber stamps... a still from Mamnou3!.

Courtesy of Mamnou3!

The process of applying for script/filming/screening/distribution permission is time-consuming and expensive, which is particularly difficult for young artists. In addition, inconsistency thrives at many levels: a film shown in cinemas with certain scenes cut may be allowed to go uncensored on DVDs. And while public morals are ‘protected’ by a scrupulous classification for scenes containing nudity, sex and profanity, physical violence on the screen doesn’t usually enjoy such attention and is left in peace.

Perhaps the most worrying feature is that the censors are not accountable to others. They also have a close relationship to various state and non-state actors. For guidance and advice, they turn to religious groups of all denominations. Political parties, ‘friendly’ foreign states and regimes, as well as the state of Lebanon itself, draw the red lines of censorship, scrupulously adhered to at the expense of creative freedom. The extent to which a foreign regime is sensitive to criticism defines whether or not a creative work will be censored in Lebanon; on the home front, documentaries in particular suffer from the authorities’ effort to protect the state’s and political parties’ image at any cost, especially when it comes to documenting experiences of the 1975-1990 civil war.

When the choice is between upsetting a religious or political leader and an artist, it’s a no brainer.

Scene 2: Daily lunacies

‘It is unacceptable that these authorities single-handedly, and without recourse to the judiciary or any other democratically accountable body, decide what citizen X or Y is allowed to watch and discuss,’ Lahoud says. ‘State censorship should be abolished: when it comes to art, it should be forbidden to forbid.’

In direct response to increasing censorship, creative acts of resistance are springing up in Lebanon. Earlier this year, artists, activists and journalists organized the anti-censorship event I AM FREE. MARCH, a civil movement promoting active citizenship, recently launched The Virtual Museum of Censorship, an illustrated online database of material that has been censored since the 1940s.

Rather than protesting against individual censorship decisions, the series challenges the very institution of censorship in the 21st century

Despite the media anger that follows censorship decisions, public outcry tends to be fleeting, and is often limited to the media and artists themselves. That’s why Mamnou3!’s creators decided to take the issue of censorship beyond cultural circles. The decision not to use any narration was deliberate: the story is open to interpretation. ‘The camera simply acts as a passive inside observer of the daily lunacies of censorship in Lebanon,’ Lahoud says.

The attention the series received has been overwhelming. To Mhanna, the 70,000 clicks and numerous articles, blogs and TV reports indicate that it has hit the spot: ‘When civil society organizations do things that are not your typical workshop or press conference, there is public attention.’ Two main techniques to bypass censorship and deceive the Bureau are piracy and the internet. ‘The best part of Mamnou3! is that it’s impossible to ban,’ Lahoud says. Censors can’t do much about the series because it’s posted online.

While some creative types refused to collaborate on the series for fear of repercussions, many in the crew agreed to work precisely for that reason. This, Lahoud says, only strengthened Mamnou3!’s raison d’être: ‘Artists should not fear their state.’

Scene 3: Artistic resistance

For Lahoud, the series is ‘the ultimate act of artistic resistance: the authorities are still scratching their heads’. This is what they worry about:

All episodes of Mamnou3! are available on YouTube and Cinemoz, a video-on-demand platform to and from the Arab World.