Looking for censorship in some unusual places

Through a youth network of 30 partner organizations, representatives of Lebanese NGOs, civil society organizations, partisan and non-partisan youth groups organized a gathering in Beirut earlier this month to tackle issues of censorship in Lebanon. One conclusion was that censorship doesn't always come for the government; religion and the family can be just as invasive.
censorship lebanon
All participants agreed that separating religion from politics is key to fighting censorship in Lebanon.

BEIRUT, September 24, 2008 (MENASSAT) – Lebanon has one of the more liberal media environments in the Arab world, and censorship isn't the first thing that comes to mind. But it does exist, and on September 10, a civil society initiative called the Youth Advocacy Process (YAP) hosted 27 young Lebanese from diverse geographic and political backgrounds to discuss censorship issues.

Kamal Shayya, the director of YAP, said the workshop was part of a larger civil initiative aimed at securing more fundamental rights for Lebanon's youth. He said these included lowering the voting age, lowering the candidacy age for politicians and securing equal citizenship rights, including the right for women to transfer the Lebanese nationality to their husbands and children.

"The idea behind the workshop came from the youths themselves. Of course, the first goal was to raise their awareness. But the next thing has been to prepare a follow-up program," Shayya said.

The role of parents

Workshop moderator Ghassan Makarem led the first presentation, which was a general overview of censorship in Lebanon. Organizers divided the participants into four groups to discuss and identify censorship in their daily lives.

Each group presented examples from their personal experiences. These included a laundry list of Lebanese societal concerns including racism, bigotry, partisanship and political repression, all of which, according to the participants, were causes of censorship in Lebanon.

What emerged after the second session was that political censorship at home was directly influenced by parental outlook. With the sectarian nature of Lebanese politics and a history of sectarian strife that led to a bloody 15-year civil war between 1975-1990, the parents' partisan or political affiliations directly affect their children's outlook, both politically, socially and religiously.

Participants also discussed gender-based censorship. In this case, participants identified the family's role in defining the traditional societal roles assigned to girls and boys – roles that often become more entrenched with age.

Organizers also showed video clips from past YAP campaigns – clips for lowering the voting age and lowering the age for public office from 25 to 22. Another video clip showed a Palestinian civil rights campaign focusing on their destitute situation in Lebanon, and there was a somewhat controversial video about sexual education. Organizers said there was real ignorance in this social area.

"There is a real defect with sexual education in Lebanon," one participant said. 

Technology and censorship

Few people consider censorship when discussing non-governmental organizations operating in Lebanon, but organizers cited an example of how government pressure exerted by Lebanon's Youth and Sports Ministry had affected the work of NGOs partnered with the Ministry. Funding issues are often a source of censorship concerns where NGOs were concerned.

A Syrian blogger, Mohamed Abdullah, spoke about facing censorship in his home country, recounting the two times that he was arrested for speaking his mind. His brother was jailed for five years after publishing an opinion piece on the Syrian regime.

Abdullah demonstrated to the 27 workshop participants the technical methods Arab governments have been using to ban websites and blogs, and he mentioned how Internet service providers were abusing human and information rights to appease governments with strict censorship mechanisms.

"I was particularly impressed with Abdullah intervention because personal experience is better than the theories," Olfat Abu Diab of the Progressive Youth Association told MENASSAT. She said the workshop was important because of the relevance it had for the youth, especially where societal taboos were concerned.

Ghassan Makarem added that if technological developments are helping with freedom of expression, it is also helping to facilitate Internet censorship.

It was pointed out that schools and universities in Lebanon are increasingly using surveillance cameras – something that YAP workshop participants said was a violation of their privacy as students. They mentioned university administration attempts at banning nude drawings in the Fine Arts departments of state-run schools, or attempts to ban an event aimed at discussing the 1975-1990 civil war.

The participants complained about expulsion threats or actual expulsion when criticizing teachers, in addition to financial incentives given to students' clubs as a means of controlling their activities.

YAP director Shayya said, "We first noticed the problem of censorship in the universities and the army, where the youth are subjected to punishment if they dare to have an opinion. Our capacities are limited and don't allow us to work inside the institutions, so we try to strengthen the youths in their environment."

Action versus theory

During the closing session, recommendations were presented. Suggestions ranged from installing a social worker in schools and universities to help students negotiate what is allowed and what is forbidden in the way of free speech, to figuring out a means to counter any governmental attempts at legalizing forms of censorship. All the participants agreed that developing a secular legal system to separate religion from politics and limit religious censorship was one way of accomplishing this.

"We need to reexamine the laws concerning censorship with the collaboration of lawyers and legislatures," said Sarah Murad, a Political Science graduate from the American University of Beirut (AUB) and a member of the NGO Towards Citizenship.

Another participant, journalist Dima Sharif, told MENASSAT that further communication between the workshop participants was a must. But she also said that theory was only of limited use, implying that workshop discussions are not enough to combat censorship.

"Actual work/reaction is more important. This dialogue should be associated with action in the field."