Lebanon’s New Regime of Censorship

An internationally minded romantic can always find good things to say about Lebanon. Travelling types praise its vibrant feel, its rich history and, perhaps most of all, its cosmopolitan sophistication. In parts of Europe, one still hears Beirut referred to as the ‘Paris of the East’.

Leave aside the laziness of this comparison for a moment. It still has some value. If nothing else, such rhetorical excesses demonstrate a certain fondness, built upon an idea of Lebanon as exciting and modern.

Recent events do not disprove this idea entirely but have, in some ways, tarnished the romantic’s rosy image of the country.

The most notable occurred when a military court in Lebanon sentenced Hanin Ghaddar, a journalist and Middle East analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, to jail in absentia for ‘attacking the army’. The only reason Ghaddar is not in prison is because she took a job in the United States about a year ago.

The saga would be absurd were it not so sinister. Ghaddar faces prison if she returns to her home country. She does so because, speaking at a conference in Washington four years ago, she referred to ‘Sunnis being clamped down by Hezbollah and the Lebanese Army’. So she stands accused of and may potentially be jailed for ‘defaming the Lebanese Army, harming its reputation and accusing it of distinguishing between Lebanese citizens’.

Ghaddar is a former editor of mine at NOW News and a good and fair woman. She does not make remarks without thinking. She does not critique without consideration or attack those undeserving of scorn.

Of course, this jail term is not a response to intemperance. Its intention is not sincerely to defend the Lebanese Army from defamation. Even if it were, it would be outrageous. Instead, it is much worse: a military court used to pursue and victimise those who criticise Hezbollah.

Ghaddar has been persistently targeted by Hezbollah-friendly media outlets such as the newspaper Al Akhbar. One justification for the campaign of intimidation ranged against her centred on the fact that she appeared – without endorsing him or advocating his perspective – at the same conference as an Israeli foreign official.

It is not unreasonable to suggest that this is no justification at all.

Lebanon’s society is becoming more censorious. The state recently banned films including Wonder Woman because Gal Gadot, who played the title role, served in the Israeli military, and Stephen Spielberg’s The Post, although the latter was recently allowed to be seen, suggesting the true partiality at the heart of this regime of censorship.

Sentencing a journalist to jail for having voiced an opinion, effectively banning her from returning to her own country, is more troubling. It speaks of a society that is not confident and outward-looking but rather afraid, spiteful and weak. It is these fears that make politicians and judges keener to prevent even reasonable critics from raising their voices.

The Lebanese courts and the country’s politicians should reconsider and recant this verdict, lest they share in its shame and its disgrace. Lebanon’s leaders and people ought not to stand for this sort of aggression against a writer and thinker for the crime of having written and thought.

They should do so on principle, of course, but there are other considerations. Lebanon must stop going down the path towards censorship or it could lose its reputation for cosmopolitanism and all sorts of less noble, more commercial benefits.

This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.

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