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Censorship in Lebanon: Law and Practice

[Image by Eusebius@Commons via Wikimedia Commons] [Image by Eusebius@Commons via Wikimedia Commons]

[The following report was issued by Marsad Al-Raqba (The Censorship Observatory) in January 2012.] 

Censorship in Lebanon: Law and Practice

Executive Summary

This study aims to provide a comprehensive assessment of censorship in Lebanon, which will hopefully 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. Thus accordingly, 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 first section of this study defines the legal institutional framework of censorship by presenting the various forms of censorship and the authorities that implement it. The second section is devoted to the topics which are censored. Such methodology allows an evaluation of the similarities and differences between prior and post censorship and paves the way for proposing conclusions and recommendations in the third and final section. 

Several difficulties were faced in documenting censorship cases. Concerning prior censorship of films and theatre plays, decisions by General Security are only made public when covered by the media, usually to protest against a particular case of censorship. Therefore, documentation relied primarily on the cooperation of artists and individuals who have had their work censored. Moreover, General Security’s decision-making process is partially influenced by the opinions of religious institutions and political groups which are often hard to access.

Regarding the post-censorship of publications, the study relies mainly on court rulings. The problem here is quite the opposite to the difficulties of documenting cases of prior censorship. While reviewing cases brought before the publications court is possible, a comprehensive assessment of post-censorship also requires an assessment of the cases that were not pursued by the Public Prosecution Office in order to infer whether there is a degree of tolerance or indifference in the Press and Publications Court.

In the first section on the different methods of censorship, the study examines the institutional legal framework of censorship in four sub-sections:

Censorship of films: 

With regard to  shooting films, General Security exercises prior censorship based on internal directives that have no legal foundation. Censorship is applied to both documentary and feature films. General Security may censor scenes or sentences by crossing them out on the film script and asking the applicant (i.e. the director) to sign on the amendments as a proof of his or her approval. The censor also adds to the filming permit a statement where by the director pledges that the film production will not constitute any damage to Lebanon or upset political or military interests. Moreover, General Security may request film directors to obtain additional permits from other official and non-official authorities such as the Lebanese Army, the Internal Security Forces, district governors and other political organizations and private companies, e.g. Solidere (The Lebanese joint-stock company in charge of planning and redeveloping Beirut Central District). Thus, the underlying principle is not to ensure the exercise of freedom as is prescribed by the law but rather to give influential parties and individuals the power to interfere and restrict freedom of expression.

With regard to film screening, the current censorship methods constitute a clear violation of existing laws. Violations occur on several levels:

  • Firstly, General Security acts as the sole censorship authority in breach of a law which stipulates that a committee should be established which consists of representatives from several ministries, as well as General Security. Moreover, in its decision-making process General Security seems to actively take into consideration the interests and opinion of religious and sectarian institutions as well as the leaders of political parties.
  • Secondly, a screening permit granted to a locally produced film is no longer considered as a general permit to screen the film, but is specific to the applicant, meaning that every screening requires a new permit. 
  • Thirdly, decisions to censor parts of movies, refusing to reply to a request or restricting viewing to certain age groups are all based on arbitrary judgments which do not have any legal foundation.

Furthermore, there is a complete lack of specific provisions for film festivals and student films. 

Concerning the import and distribution of films, General Security exercises strict censorship based on the general provisions stipulated in the decree that outlines General Security activities. This censorship is exercised by the Customs Department and films are either imported without conditions or with specific conditions such as a signed statement to remove specific scenes as a prerequisite to obtaining a screening permit. Films can be restricted to adult-only screenings or to personal use and may even be confiscated.

Censorship of theatre plays

General Security exercises prior censorship on theatre plays based on a legislative decree passed in 1977 which explicitly gives it the right to fully reject or partially approve the staging of a play without directives or guidelines. It should be noted that the legislative decree was issued during the Civil War and shortly after court rulings which prohibited subjecting theatre plays to censorship by General Security (namely the case of ‘Majdaloun’, a play which was banned from being staged by the Internal Security Forces. However, the Judiciary dismissed all prosecution charges against the director on the basis that there can be no penalty imposed without reference to a law. Moreover, the director won the civil lawsuit against the State on the basis of breaching a constitutional freedom).

Censorship of publications: 

All periodical publications, whether political or non-political, must obtain a license to publish from the ministry of information following consultations with the Press Syndicate. It should be mentioned that the 1953 Law which restricted the number of political newspapers that can be published converted the publishing license into a privilege enjoyed by only those who acquired the license before the law was passed, those who bought it from others, or had it conceded to them. Undoubtedly, the limited number of publishing licenses constitutes a basic violation of press freedom and an essential factor in converting these licenses into commercial privileges enjoyed by capital owners. 

The situation is made worse by the inappropriate distinction between political and non-political periodicals. This is reflected in some of the rulings of the Beirut Publications Court which stipulated that news which is of human or national interest is not considered political.

Moreover, foreign publications require a license prior to import and distribution in Lebanon. The minister of information may prohibit the entry of a foreign publication and confiscate copies of it if the publication is perceived to endanger security, upset national sentiment, damage public morals or incite sectarian tensions. General Security exercises prior censorship on imported publications. In a press release justifying the prohibition of certain foreign publications following the death of Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad in 2000, General Security stated that although censorship cannot prevent the circulation of information and ideas due to the widespread use of the Internet, censorship reflects the government’s policies and represents a kind of moral penalty imposed on publishers. 

Besides the administrative controls which are rarely exercised by the ministry of information, the study tackles the judicial constraints, in other words, the legal mechanisms that penalize alleged press offenses. In this respect, several observations can be made:

  • There is an absence of debate about the relevance of the criminal approach, in contrast to the 1960s and 1970s when several deputies repeatedly suggested the abolition of corporal punishment and restriction of penalty to personal indemnity.
  • Judges are often appointed to the Publications Court without any prior expertise in the field. This lack of specialization leads to a decline in judicial independence.
  • The current Publications Court which was appointed in March 2009 began to sentence press offenses with imprisonment, whereas formerly punishment was restricted to imposing fines.
  • Judges, in general, appear to be very reluctant to take punitive measures against defendants (such as provisional detention or suspension of publication) before the final sentence is passed, so as to prevent the abuse of power. However, this judicial restraint was recently under threat when following the broadcast of news programs on certain judges, High Judicial Council and the General Assembly of Judges in July 2008, released two statements calling on the minister of justice to amend the press law and in particular lift the ban on temporary detention for press offences. Accordingly, the minister integrated their request into a draft law submitted to the council of ministers. However, he later withdrew it out of respect for media freedom. Similar situations are the arrest of four persons for publishing articles on Facebook (June- July 2010) considered hostile to the President of the Republic, the detention of Al-Akhbar newspaper journalist Hassan Alleik (11-08-2010) for an investigative report on army intelligence forces following the escape of a retired officer suspected of collaboration with Israel and the detention (18-08-2010) of civil engineer Ismail el Sheikh Hassan by army intelligence following the publication of an article in the daily Assafir newspaper about the reconstruction of Nahr Al Bared Camp. 

Moreover, the study criticizes articles in the 2008 electoral law which reduce the boundaries of criticism so that in addition to defamation and slander, press offences also included for the first time in legislation for “intimidation”, “treason” and “blasphemy.” These new offences may be used to restrict media freedoms instead of widening their scope, as is required during elections in order to better enable voters to choose their representatives based on their election agendas.

Censorship of Audiovisual Media:

Regarding censorship of audiovisual media outlets, this study focuses on three main issues:

  • Firstly, filming permits which can also be considered as privileges.
  • Secondly, the extent of  prior censorship  exercised by General Security, which covers all filmed television programs except live programs such as news, reports, interviews, political talk shows, live entertainment and social programs. Although satellite TV channels are not subject to prior censorship, they are required to obtain the approval of the minister of information for their general program. In this respect, it should be noted that on 16 April 1997, the State Shura Council suspended the ministerial decision which allowed the prior censorship of satellite programs, basing its ruling on the right to freedom of expression as stated in the preamble of the Constitution.
  • Third,  post censorship exercised by the ministry of information and the National Audiovisual Council. Following the first breach of the law, the minister of information may decide to suspend the TV channel for a maximum period of three days. Following the second breach, the council of ministers may suspend broadcast for a period between three days and one month.

In both cases, the National Audiovisual Council plays only a consultative role, as it is part of the ministry of information and does not enjoy any independence. Moreover, the council of ministers may suspend satellite broadcasting immediately and for a maximum period of one month if the conditions of the broadcast permit are breached. The council of ministers may also refer the offending channel to court, suspend it or terminate its license on the pretext of protecting of State’s higher interests.

Judicial post censorship and increased censorship during elections, is carried out according to the principles related to the publication offenses mentioned above.

In the second section on censorship, this study seeks to determine the red lines imposed by the censoring authorities.

First of all, the section outlines the political considerations on both national and foreign levels.

On the national level, General Security not only strives to preserve the positive image of state institutions but also actively promotes it, by often taking into consideration the interests of powerful political figures at the expense of creative freedom. Indeed, the screening permit stipulates that the film should not damage the state or any political group and nor should it incite confessional strife. This has frequently led to the suspension in production of documentaries, especially those that hold leaders accountable for their role in the Civil War. One recent example of General Security’s censorship of documentaries is the ban on director De Gaulle Eid’s film “Shou Sar” (“What happened”) as it covered a violent period during the Civil War.

The Press and Publications Court, however, seems to be less open to influence from powerful figures in defamation and slander cases, and has frequently overruled their concerns. Some of the Court’s decisions are based on Article 387 of the Penal Code which states that the defamation of a public official is justified as long as the defamation is proven to be true. However, we should note that the Court has not implemented this article in a consistent manner, as it has overridden the article several times, specifically in cases which involved the defamation of President of the Republic or the Army. In these cases, the criticism is considered to target the whole institution and not only the defamed person, is thus linked to other crimes such as endangering Lebanon’s foreign relations, slander or provocation. However, at the same time, the Court has issued two rulings which justify defamation if the defendant can prove that the publication of the statement is beneficial to the public interest, even if the defamed person is not a public official.

Accordingly, 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.

Regarding  foreign relations with friendly countries, the censor pays considerable attention to the political sensitivities of Arab regimes, and endeavors to safeguard diplomatic relations with these countries, and as well banning attacks on the Palestinian cause, and Arabs and Islam in general. Moreover, state institutions were willing several times to interfere in order to prevent criticism of certain countries, even in violation of the law, for example censoring a TV program prior to broadcast because it contained an episode on Saudi Arabia. Post-censorship is likewise applied in other cases, e.g. the criticism or defamation of a foreign head of state which is considered equal in offence to defaming the Lebanese president. Penal Code provisions have also been applied to offenses related to damaging relations between Lebanon and a foreign country.

Regarding relations with enemy states, there are two types of censorship directed mainly against Israel. Firstly, censorship is based on a national law which calls for the boycott of all Israeli products. However, it should be noted that General Security sometimes finds it difficult to censor material by anti-Zionist Israelis or Jews. Secondly, there is censorship of all forms of publicity or compassion for Israel. Thus General Security censors any scenes related to Jews, as well as their religious and national holidays or symbols. In some cases, the censor blurs compassion and publicity for Jews with compassion and publicity for Israel.

Concerning censorship of material on religion or which contains religious content,  General Security exercises strict prior censorship and allows religious authorities (mainly Dar Al Iftaa and the Catholic Media Center) a fundamental role in decision-making. This is in contrast to court rulings which reflect a high degree of tolerance and respect of a citizen’s right to free expression (e.g. The acquittals of singer Marcel Khalifeh for charges related to singing Qur’anic verses and writer Joseph Haddad for an article entitled “Kidnapped God”).

In this respect, the censor classifies material according to three categories, each with its own legal status:

  • Category 1: topics or scenes that are not damaging to religion or religious beliefs, but question the ability of religion to counter evil (restricted to adults)
  • Category 2: certain scenes, but not the entire contents of a film or play, considered offensive to religion (offensive scenes removed, screening is restricted to adults, or import is permitted but screening or copying the film is prohibited).
  • Category 3 includes films or plays considered to be offensive to religion (films are confiscated). 

Furthermore, a recent statement by the information minister indicates a trend towards further tightening of censorship of material which contains religious content, following the suspension of an Iranian-produced series about Jesus Christ on Al-Manar and NBN TV stations. The statement read: “Each believer has the right to interpret his own faith, and others must respect this interpretation of faith and ideology… We should not discuss other religions in a way that leads other believers not to recognize their faith, history and interpretation of ideology”.

Regarding censorship material which offends public morals, the criteria of the censor may be classified into several categories. Besides scenes of nudity, sex, and foul language which are inspected thoroughly and strictly censored (i.e. scenes which show the backside, breasts, or include moaning, etc.), the censor generally determines the extent to which the film or work does not offend public morals. Thus the import of certain movies which presumably promote homosexuality is usually prohibited. By contrast, General Security rarely censors violent scenes or scenes that depict drug use. Furthermore, it should be noted the Press and Publications Court (1999-2009) did not set any precedents whereby films or other artistic works were banned because they violated public morals.

In conclusion, 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.  

[Click here to download the full report.] 

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