media


In the 1990s, when the Lebanese civil war was still a fresh memory, cultural products accused of “disturbing civil peace” began to disappear from the Lebanese scene. It proved to be a very flexible and useful category that included almost anything that touched on the war. I remember Robert Fisk’s Pity the Nation disappearing overnight from Beirut’s bookstores. Many blamed it on Syria at the time, but the heavy hand of censorship continues to strike today in Lebanon, the Middle East’s “only breathing space.”

This year’s Beirut International Film Festival promised to be the event of the year for film buffs. It kicked off with no less than Francis Ford Coppola coming to Lebanon to launch his latest film, Tetro. But the atmosphere soon soured when General Security prohibited the screening of two of Paolo Benvenuti’s films. The reason: they offend the church of the Middle Ages. The church here being the Catholic church, of course, because General Security based its decision upon consultation with the notorious Catholic Center for Media (المركز الكاثوليكي للاعلام), also behind the banning of Da Vinci Code.

But the story goes beyond the Catholic Center. Using the worn-out weapon of “safeguarding civil peace” — as if we needed the cinema to whip things up — General Security is now undermining the work of a promising young talent, Simon al-Habr. They have censored a crucial part of his documentary Samaan bil-Day`ah, which deals precisely with the memory of the civil war — a war we are allowed to commemorate but not to allowed to remember. The director has put the censored bit on youtube, so you can see for yourself how threatening it is (includes English subtitles).

In today’s al-Akhbar, Pierre Abi Saab rightfully points out the hypocrisy of the so-called “liberal” “intellectuals” in Lebanon who were quick to jump the gun when the censorship concerned Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, but remained silent about the undermining of local works such as al-Habr’s documentary and Mark Abi Rashid’s Help.

But I think there is another side to this. This censorship, like most censorship, is not only about the content. It is more about who is allowed to do the utterance. For what is utterly ridiculous about censoring al-Habr’s documentary in the name of “safeguarding civil peace” is that the censored recollection of the mountain war is nothing compared to the venom regularly spewed by Lebanese politicians when they evoke the civil war. And those politicians who wield violence, ironically (or not), seem to have more right to the molding of a collective memory of the war. What this kind of censorship effectively does is strip only us, the citizens, of this right.

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Elections' Most Recent: Transparent Ballot Boxes (Source: www.annahar.com)

Elections' Latest: Transparent Ballot Boxes (Source: http://www.annahar.com)

Following his article on electoral campaign advertisements, Ghassan Su`ud has another report this time on campaigning on the Internet. It is in Arabic, but it provides links to websites most of which have an English version (even francophone candidates are converting to English. What is the world coming to?).

Interestingly, Hizballah was among the first political parties to ride the Internet wave back in 1997, by first providing material to al-Mashriq and then, later, going off on their own. Things are different today. While March 14, the Free Patriotic Movement, the Lebanese Forces, and the Kataeb have expended a lot of energy — and done so early on — to present their candidates and an “elections” section on their websites, Hizballah is playing it low key and has candidate blurbs only in Arabic. Future Movement followed suit more recently by adding a candidate section to its personality-cult website. And, apart from the advertisement at the bottom, I did not find any evidence on Amal’s website of an upcoming election.

This could be partly explained by the parties’ conceptions of the percentage of their electorate residing abroad and their dependence on the Internet. There is also the newly found savviness for corporate identity and image-management since the Cedar Revolution and its concomitant breed of graphic design tools. Most importantly, I do not think it is a coincidence that most of the electoral websites mentioned in Su`ud’s article belong to Christian candidates — specifically candidates running in Matn and Beirut 1 (Ashrafiyah, Rmayl, Sayfi). The parties with the most engaging websites are also invested in the results of the elections in these districts. Incidentally, Matn and Beirut 1, along with Zahlah, are the only real battlegrounds in the upcoming elections.

Yesterday, a Palestinian doctor living in Gaza lost three daughters, a brother, and three nieces when an IDF tank shelled their home. The IDF knew the family was living there and claimed that there was sniper fire from the building. Bogus. This story is nothing special, unfortunately, it has been happening every day to several families across Gaza since Israel started its belligerent campaign. Dr. Abu al-`Aysh however, is special. He is educated in Israeli hospitals, has ties in Israeli society, and speaks fluent Hebrew. So, he made it to the news as a person and not as another number and managed to transmit some of the horror on Israeli Channel 10.

Richard Silverstein has an elaborate post on this as well as a live interview with the doctor by phone right after his house was shelled.

The beating Omar Harqous received Thursday at the hands of SSNP members and the party’s subsequent apology — shamelessly packaged in justifications — have elicited a wave of reactions from various Lebanese journalists, including news sources invariably described as pro-Syrian or pro-Opposition. One of these is Samah Idris, editor-in-chief of al-Adab magazine. Idris is one of the few Lebanese public figures who have tried to shape a third line since 2005, balancing a respect for the necessity of resistance while simultaneously being very critical of Hizballah and its allies. Below is a translation-on-the-go of his op-ed in al-Akhbar on the Harqous beating.

In defense of myself… not of Omar!
by Samah Idriss

I do not like most of what Omar Harqus has written, particularly his classist and sectarian criticism of the Opposition’s sit-in (notwithstanding our position on that sit-in and on that dubious opposition). I still feel anger whenever I remember his repugnance at “the grilled meat under the statue of Riyad al-Solh,” “the hubbly bubblies that block the way,” and “the outhouses in the middle of the street” (al-Mustaqbal Newspaper 8/12/2006)! But I feel that the punches directed at Harqus were directed at me. And I feel that the blood that flowed from him is part of my blood… Or could be part of my blood and the blood of other writers if we overlook or make up excuses to justify what has happened. The hands that attacked Harqus do injustice, first and foremost, to their own principles and to their martyrs assassinated in Akkar [Halba] at the hands of people who took advantage of their defenseless small numbers. It would have been more worthy of [Antun] Sa`adah’s deep-rooted party not to use its members’ refusal to be photographed by Harqus as an excuse. What is worse is that the perpetrators called Harqus “Jewish”: Being Jewish is not a disgrace and should not be treated as such… Particularly not by those who adopt the causes of secularism and the fight against confessionalism.

I am not only defending Harqus. I am also defending, perhaps primarily, my right to say and write what I want. When I remain silent about [Paul] Shawul’s trial, Harqus’s beating, [Michel] Kilo’s imprisonment, the banning of Edward Sa`id’s books, or Samir Kassir’s murder, I am contributing to my own trial, beating, imprisonment, ban, or murder. Because with my silence I am preparing the ground for my own future oppression. I know that some of those expressing solidarity with Harqus would have kept quiet about the beating of another journalist form outside March 14. I also know that they kept quiet about my own trial — after an adviser of one of Iraq’s sultans filed a lawsuit against me — while they vied for the defense of Paul Shawul against General Aoun. And I know that some of them express solidarity only with the prisoners of conscience in Syria (who should be released immediately). Despite this, we, the people of the pen, make a grave mistake if we turn the slogan of “freedom of expression” into a political expedient. My position could be described as idealistic. But I do not find an alternative to it if we still believe that intellectual struggle is the only admissible weapon against our intellectual opponents.

To those unwilling or unable to follow news in Arabic, the Lebanese daily, al-Akhbar, dropped a journalistic bombshell Thursday. Three journalists from the newspaper had an off the record chat with Walid Junblat. Only al-Akhbar published what Junblat said (the LA Times picked up on this).

Off the record, Junblat said many things. He said he realized what it meant when Rice said that it is the Syrian regime’s behavior they want to change, not the regime itself. But that nevertheless he kept up the provocation because “politics demands it.”

He also said that they have to live with Hizballah’s weapons until regional or international changes allow for Hizballah’s gradual integration into the state and that Ahmadinajad will not give up those weapons until Iran feels secure in its position.

al-Mustaqbal party received the brunt of Junblat’s criticism. He said Hariri Jr. has evolved over the past three years, but those around him have not. He also criticized Hariri Jr. for playing a dangerous game with the Salafis saying it was well that he ended it in good time. Of al-Mustaqbal parliamentarians, he said they are Sunni fanatics even when there are no elections, especially Fatfat and his likes. He also criticized Hariri’s advisors, especially Maher Hammoud and `Uqab Saqr (the latter also behind savior of the Shia, emancipator of the muhajjabat: Meouw Lebanon).

Of the Christian allies, he said they have become a burden. He spoke about the conflicts between the March 14 Christians and the narrow party fanaticism that prevented Nayla Mouawwad and Butrus Harb from becoming ministers, knowing that they would have improved election results. Today, on the record, he jumped ahead of the criticism in what sounds like a prelude to electoral alliances with March 8 in Ba`abda.

And much, much more. al-Akhbar have broken professional protocol and they know it. They said enough to elicit a swift reaction from Junblat and an affirmation of the “deep and historical ties” that bind him with al-Mustaqbal, saying that al-Akhbar has taken things out of context and distorted meanings. al-Akhbar yesterday clarified that it had printed exactly what Junblat said, explaining:

al-Akhbar has enough literary courage to apologize to its readers for being quick in affording them a view into the backstage of political life, even if it came at the expense of professional protocol.

Sensationalist? Maybe. Unprofessional? With sleazy, conniving, narrow-minded, blood-sucking, self-centered, short-sighted, back-stabbing, royalty-on-a-garbage-dump politicians like these, you cannot go wrong. There are many things al-Akhbar can be criticized for – among them their thin criticism of Hizballah and a lack of sharp political analysis, the likes of which Joseph Samahah was able to produce. But with its blend of excellent reporting and unconventional ethics, it is breaking new ground in the pitiful, stale journalistic life of Lebanon. One can only hope that, as election time miracles keep multiplying, there will be more such unethical revelations about the petty considerations that drive Lebanese politics.

Sometime last week, the inhabitants of Beirut looked out their windows in the morning to see their neighborhoods miraculously transformed to the way they were 18 years ago. Uncollected garbage, party insignia, posters and flags, armed boys hanging out at street corners.

The last 18 years suddenly felt like a dream. A veil painted over with projected hopes and future plans suddenly lifted to reveal a scene where nothing has changed. Where the quiet and calm are the state of emergency and all else is normalcy. Today the government rescinded the two resolutions, the casus belli, and the veil has been closed once again, but not before affording a view into what civil war redux would look like.

Snipers, road blocks, identity cards, break ins, “neighborhood watch,” obsessive phone calls to family and friends, abandoned pets to be fed, an evening spent nursing a whiskey bottle, bakery queues, canned food, an acquaintance dead, even a massacre… All in less than 48 hours and reenacted in such speed you would think it was a drill, so that both perpetrators and perpetrated – if such a line can be drawn – do not fall out of practice.

But then there were other things, less familiar things. A rabid media inciting people. al-Qaeda affiliated websites calling for Jihad. Mobile phones – those ubiquitous mobile phones – put to new uses. Atrocities circulating on youtube. Clips of sounds and sights from the fighting. Live news over the Internet. Live refutation of live news over the Internet. Rumors spreading like wild fire. The refresh button. CTRL+R. CTRL+R. CTRL+R. Tayyar. Nashra. Naharnet. Arabiyah, Jazeera…

Should there be a next time, this time round it will be worse. Much worse.

This time round, the civil war will be digitized.