BEIRUT, Lebanon — At the entrance to the March Lebanon office in Beirut there is a well-stocked bookshelf. Its contents include classics like “Of Mice and Men,” “The Diary of Anne Frank,” “The Da Vinci Code,” “Sophie’s Choice” and the slightly less classy “Little Book of Big Penis.”
Crack the covers and you’ll realize this isn’t any ordinary book collection. The pages are all blank. The Lebanese government has banned them. Turn it over and you might be surprised to read why. The reasons range from homosexual references and politics to religion and vague connection to things Jewish.
On an adjacent shelf sits an eclectic CD collection including Frank Sinatra (Banned: Zionist tendencies), Lady Gaga (Banned: Offensive to Christianity), The Buddha Bar Compilation (Banned: Religion) and Bad Religion (Banned: Offensive name).
March, a Lebanese NGO and the owners of this bizarre collection, have been documenting these obscure and arbitrary censorship practices in Lebanon via their Virtual Museum of Censorship since the group was founded in 2011. To describe their findings as bizarre would be an understatement.
“The laws of censorship are so vague that it allows the people in charge to censor anything they want,” said Lea Baroudi, a founding member and general coordinator of March. “And what worries me is that I think it is getting worse.”
Baroudi said many of the inconsistences exist because there is no centralized censorship body. Various ministries, commissions and general security can all legally ban material while religious authorities, political parties and even foreign embassies wield their influence on censorship decisions.
Criteria for censorship listed in one of March’s publications seem unhelpfully broad:
– Offensive to the sensitivities of the public
– Propaganda against Lebanese interests
– Disrespectful to public order, morals and good ethics
– Exposing the State to danger
Censorship records cannot be accessed by the general public. For several days GlobalPost attempted to contact General Security, one of the main bodies that censor material in Lebanon, but were told no one was available for comment. We were instead directed to the general security website which lists their duties as “fighting whatever endangers security” and preventing the “spread of rumours that could jeopardise security”. This includes the surveillance of movies, media and the press and ensuring the “right implementation of the laws and rules verdicts related to the affairs of censorship and Media.”
March gather their information through a network of informants among artists and importers and retailers in music shops, bookstores and theatres. They also search newspapers and TV archives for records of censorship cases and have conducted dozens of interviews with individuals whose material has been banned.
“We are fighting censorship because it is very important to have freedom of expression particularly in a country as diverse as Lebanon. We should get used to accepting each other’s differences rather than trying to shut each other up,” Baroudi said.
She added that censorship of art and culture is particularly negative as these mediums are “tools for peace and dialogue” with the ability to bring people together and open minds.
“Because we don’t acknowledge our differences, because we don’t talk about our differences, we still have those tensions. We still fear each other,” Baroudi said.
While censorship decisions are bizarre enough, the methods of censorship can be even more absurd.
In some cases, material that is banned in one medium can be allowed in another. For example, while a movie may be banned in cinemas it could be approved on DVD, or banned on DVD but allowed in cinemas and on television.
If you take a stroll through the Virgin Megastore in Downtown Beirut there are two things you may notice. The first is a sticker that often appears on box sets warning customers of “missing items that were confiscated by general security for censorship reasons.”
The second is known locally as “black marker” censorship. This most commonly occurs with music CD compilations were a song title or artist is found to be offensive. The name and title are simply blacked out with a marker. You can listen to the song, you just can’t read the title or artist name.
One highly confusing reason for censorship is the 1955 Lebanese Anti-Israeli Boycott law, which outlaws any material related to the State of Israel. Although the law itself targets Israel, rather than Jews, it has been interpreted extremely broadly by some censorship decision-makers. This has resulted in random decisions to ban some movies in which Jewish actors appear while allowing others, and the random black markering of any name that has a Jewish ring to it.
The classic Of Mice and Men was recently banned when an officer of the general security thought the name John Steinbeck sounded Jewish, according to local newspaper the Daily Star. After discovering he wasn’t Jewish or related to Israel in any way, the ban was subsequently lifted.
The Israeli factor also extends to actors, composers or artists who, while not being Jewish, have had some connection to Israel. For example all movies featuring Jane Fonda (banned since visiting Israel in 1982), Elizabeth Taylor (who converted to Judaism) or the music of Frank Sinatra are banned because they have been labeled in Lebanon as supporters of the Israeli state.
“If a non-Israeli person supports Israel and acts in a movie about tomatoes it will be banned,” Baroudi said. “There is a fundamental problem in this way of thinking. Why can’t we watch it? In what way is this promoting Israel or Israeli culture? It’s a big hypocrisy.”
In 2009, The New York Times reported that Francis Ford Coppola was refused entry by airport security after attempting to fly his private jet to Lebanon for the opening of the Beirut Film Festival. The reason, part of the engine was made in Israel. He was forced to land in Damascus and travel overland.
But the biggest issue for groups like March and open-minded Lebanese citizens is that censorship is an insult to their intellect.
Adjacent to the March office bookshelf a quote by French Philosopher Claude Adrien Helvetus is proudly displayed:
“To limit the press is to insult a nation; to prohibit reading of certain books is to declare the inhabitants to be either fools or slaves.”
On topics like this one, however, it’s probably worth remembering that even in countries where support for Israel isn’t a censor-worthy offense, and even in countries within the famously anti-censorship Anglo-American legal tradition, freedom of expression is not without limits. Here, for example, are a few censorship moments in U.S. and U.K. film history.
1915 – The D.W. Griffith’s silent film “The Birth of a Nation” about the American Civil War was banned in 8 states after its racist content and praise of the Ku Klux Klan incited riots in Ohio, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Colorado.
1917 – “Birth Control,” an educational film about family planning by sex education teacher Margaret Sanger was banned in New York “in the interest of morality, decency, and public safety and welfare.”
1932 – The original “Scarface” by Howard Hughes was banned in five US states because of its glorification of crime.
1942 – U.S. censors unsuccessfully demanded changes in the story of the affair between Rick and Ilsa in “Casablanca,” requiring that Ilsa’s husband Victor be deceased, instead of away on business, to remove any suggestion of impropriety.
1943 – The Howard Hughes film “The Outlaw” was banned for 3 years due to the movie’s constant focus on Jane Russell’s large breasts. A minute of footage was cut before it was finally released in 1946.
1951 – In the US, References to Blanche Dubois’s infidelities were excised from “A Streetcar Named Desire.” The censors were also concerned with the moral ambiguity of the characters.
1973 – Religious horror thriller “The Exorcist” was banned in the UK until 1990, when it finally passed the British Board of Film Censorship.
1979 – Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” spurred protests and was banned in several U.K. cities for blasphemy. Bizarrely in Lebanon this was banned, not for religious content but for “Eroticism”, showing the star of David and over suspicions that it might have been shot in Israel.
1988 – The highly controversial Martin Scorsese film “The Last Temptation of Christ” was banned in Savannah, Georgia.
1994 – The star-studded “Natural Born Killers,” written by Quentin Tarantino, was banned in Ireland. While originally denied distribution in the USA, it was later approved after a 4 minute cut. The film sparked some copycat murders including the Columbine High School massacre during which the murders reportedly shouted quotes from the movie.