The “Uncensored” Freedom of Speech in the Cedar Country

Since its inception, Lebanon has been considered as an island of freedom and democracy in the midst of a group of Arab countries ruled by authoritarian and repressive regimes. But, to what extent does this idyllic image approach the reality of a little country made up of 18 different faith confessions and ruled by a sectarian political system?

In recent years, the Arab world has experienced a series of popular uprisings, some of which have led to changes at the political level. However, Lebanon had already experienced its own revolt, known as The Cedar Spring, during 2005. On 14th February, the famous Sunni Prime Minister, Rafic Hariri, was killed by a truck bomb explosion in downtown Beirut. From that moment, the international community began to lobby for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from the country.

In this context, a massive demonstration against Syrian occupation took place in Martyrs Square in Beirut on 14th March. This demonstration brought together around one million Lebanese from all religious and ethnic communities and seemed to herald the end of sectarianism in a free country. Finally, the Syrian army retreated completely from Lebanon on 26th April, in compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 1559.

The achievement of this goal breathed optimism into society: the tragic events of the Civil War were part of the past and now Lebanon had a new opportunity to rise from the ashes like a phoenix. But what really ended the Cedar Revolution? Lebanon regained its de facto independence, but it also recovered, unfortunately, its endemic sectarianism. Some former leaders of the Civil War returned to the political scene and each party began to defend their own interests above the national interest. In general terms, all parties were grouped into two coalitions, the pro-Syria 8th March coalition and the anti-Syria 14th March coalition. In fact, these two coalitions have a distinct sectarian nature; the first one is mainly composed of major Shiite parties, one of the most important Christian parties, and other small movements representing other communities; the second one includes the most important Sunni party, the other Christian political movements, and also a group of small political formations.

Given this reality, it can be said the expectations and desires of the Lebanese Spring fell on deaf ears. However, much of the country’s youth continued to believe in the possibility of progress in the construction of a less sectarian, more peaceful and respectful Lebanon. So after the liberation of Lebanon, a large number of associations began to appear which are secular. One prime example is the Association for a Secular Lebanon1 founded in 2005 by the Belgian-Lebanese pharmacist Fawzi Abi-Khalil. The action of this association was essential to the opening of the Maison Laïque2 (Secular House) in August 2009, a center which promotes secularism in Lebanon and has a library full of books on philosophy, secularism, civil society, human rights, Arab and Western literature. Another initiative is the group KAFA Violence & Exploitation3. This initiative also began in 2005 with a group of professionals in different disciplines and human rights activists. According to its website, this is a Lebanese non-profit, non-political, non-confessional civil society organisation committed to the achievement of gender-equality and non-discrimination, and to the advancement of the human rights of women and children. It is also important to note the foundation of CLAFA4 (Coalition of Lebanese Atheists, Freethinkers and Agnostics) in December 2007, something quite striking in a society so marked by the feeling of religious community belonging.

Alongside these associations, there is an interesting initiative called March.5 This initiative is described on its own website as a ‘civil movement actively seeking to safe-keep the tenets of a peaceful and prosperous Lebanon (.) the precondition is a genuine respect between the various communities within the country as well as the acceptance of their differences’. In this sense, fighting against censorship is a basic pillar in order to strengthen freedom of expression and respect for all beliefs and opinions.

Within this initiative there are two more concrete actions: F.R.E.E 20126 and the Museum of Censorship7. F.R.E.E (Freedom and Right of Expression Events) 2012 can be defined as a program of events and activities developed over the last year to combat censorship. This program of events included a one-off newspaper, conferences, activities, and the participation in various events in Lebanon.

The one-off newspaper shares the same name as the initiative itself F.R.E.E 2012. On the front page appears a caricature on different Lebanese prototypical personalities who shout together: ‘Yes to freedom of expression’. The newspaper is written mostly in Arabic, but there are also articles written in French, English, and of course, in the Lebanese Arabic dialect (written in Arabic characters). Dialect writing breaks here as another symbol of freedom of expression; it is increasingly common to find phrases written in this language variety in Lebanese newspapers and magazines editorial cartoons.

Members of March visited different universities around Lebanon with the aim of distributing the newspaper. A debate with students about censorship and freedom of expression followed. In order to prepare debates, the group established some focus groups with students from a number of universities. Students were asked to evaluate their awareness about censorship and freedom of expression, to measure their influence concerning censorship and to recognise what they think about this issue. The newspaper was distributed in University of Balamand, in ALBA (Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts), in Notre Dame University-Louaize, in Saint Joseph University (Zahle, Huvelin and Sodeco Campuses), and in the American University of Beirut.

The group March also organized a conference at Hotel Sofitel Le Gabriel of Beirut entitled ‘Censorship in Lebanon: an Uncensored Look’. Participants at this conference were: Jean Pierre Katrib from the Association for Human Rights and Humanitaria Law, Tarek Mitri, the well-known Lebanese Greek orthodox university professor and former Minister of Information, Andre Cassas, President of the Censorship Committee, Colette Naufal, President of the Lebanese Cinema Club and Beirut Film Festival and Jihad El Murr, president of 2U2C, NRJ Radio and Radio Nostalgie. This activity shows the interest of the civil society on the issue of freedom of expression, despite living in one of the freest societies in the Middle East, the Lebanese people are aware of the long road ahead of them.

March organised an event from 5-7th October 2012 in a new Beirut event venue called Solea V. This forum included an art exhibition and a representation of the Virtual Museum of Censorship. The event was held in parallel with another one called Share Beirut, organised by Share Foundation in partnership with March and another association called Nahwa Al-Muwatiniya. The art exhibition showed works related to the theme of freedom of expression and censorship. The representation of Virtual Museum of Censorship was composed of a range of artistic media including films, books and music albums that were censored in Lebanon. Then, Share Foundation8, according to its website, a nonprofit organisation that is dedicated to protecting the rights of Internet citizens and promoting positive values of openness, de-centralisation, free access and exchange of knowledge, information and technology. The foundation sometimes organises weekend-long public, free and non-commercial hybrid events blending an Internet culture and technology related daytime conference with dynamic cutting-edge music festival by night. The conference lasts 72 hours and brings together people from all around the world. Most recently, the conference was held in Beirut and it adopted the name of Share Beirut. The result was a big three-day festival dedicated to freedom of expression in all its forms.

Finally, the most famous initiative of March is, undoubtedly, the Virtual Museum of Censorship. This is an audacious initiative that reinforces the work done by this group. On 2nd September of the last year, a website became operational in order to gather all of the information related to censorship in Lebanon. It has included the names of canceled events, books, films and artworks. All of the content can be classified in different ways and it covers the period from 1940 to the present. The website also describes in detail who the main players in the censorship process in the country are, and how they work. There are four institutions: General Security, Ministry of Information, The Special Administrative Committee and the National Audiovisual Media Council. According to the website, the museum is still a work in progress and the contribution of net users is greatly appreciated since the government does not provide them with any resources or information.

In conclusion, Lebanese society continues to mobilise itself against sectarianism, censorship and any kind of repression. The large number of protests that have been taking in the country in favour of secularism since 2010 are proof of this. The Laïque Pride9 movement was created in November 2009 by some Lebanese artists who were opposed to the censorship of the Beirut Rock Festival of this year. This movement managed to gather a large number of associations and movements, like March or CLAFA, in a big demonstration called Laïque Pride March on 25th April 2010. This demonstration took place again on both 17th April 2011 and 6th May 2012. In addition, a part of Lebanese population is demanding the approval of civil marriage; this is further proof of the mobilisation of civil society against sectarianism and in favour of freedom of belief and speech. Despite the difficulties, the Lebanese know what it means to rebuild a country, and this spirit of overcoming can play a major role when it comes time to break these kinds of walls. The path chosen by most of the population of the Cedar Country towards freedom and peace is definitely a path of no return.

Group March advertising spot:

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Secular Lebanese protest against Muslim-Christian sectarianism, April 2010.
From the same demonstration.
On the 13th and 14th of April 2012, the Lebanese Association of Philosophy of Law and the International Association of Free Thought organized in Beirut (Lebanon) a colloquium on secularism. For two days, a hundred participants debated issues of secularism, religion and the rule of law in Lebanon.
Secular movement demostration in Beirut 15 May 2011.
March inspired grafitti in Beirut.

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Published by Asfar in London, UK - ISSN 2055-7957 (Online)