Randa Chahal Sabbag’s film “The Kite” was finally withdrawn from NTV’s program yesterday following political pressure and threats made against the TV channel’s director M. Tahsin Khayat. This is not the first time the Lebanese Public is deprived from viewing a film directed by deceased Lebanese film director Randa Chahal Sabbag. A previous film she had directed was banned from Lebanon unless the director re-edit it and cut out 40 minutes, something she obviously refused to do.
Calling a spade any other name
What is interesting is to see how the news of this censorship was reported by the Lebanese Press. L’Orient-Le Jour for instance didn’t speak of censorship when reporting on the matter. They based their short article on the press release issues conjointly by Walid Arslan-Jumblatt and Talal Jumblatt-Arslan: quoting it extensively and using its terminology. Instead of using the word “censorship” or “cancellation” or “de-programming”, they used the words “postponement”, and instead of insisting on the policial and communal dimension behind this censorship, the Lebanese French-speaking daily quoted the justification given by the Arslan-Jumblat duo: the respect of the “sensitivities that might arise in some religious circles”.
L’Orient-Le Jour published the statement and then very euphemistically put it in context: “The statement followed hostile demonstrations held near the residence of the owner of the chain Tahsin Khayat, and near the headquarters of the TV-station in Wata Mousseitbe”. There is no information on the number of people that participated in these demonstrations, and no comment that the larger demonstration was in front of the owner’s house in Doha (an affluent suburb that was formally controlled by the Druze militia in the territory it had carved for itself). Why demonstrate in front of his home? why make this issue personal and threatening? The word “hostile” is used to replace the language of the demonstrators. The article doesn’t mention what did they actually said. Only the words of the communal leaders are seen worthy of publishing. Nothing is said about the threats that were made (of arson, among many).
Deference to politicians: Hush Hush, let the politicians speak
The most striking feature of this information is the press release that the paper conscienciously published. What is striking is its Orwellian style. It goes well beyond newspeak and claims the opposite of what was actually done: It rejects the principle of censorship! Here is the last part of the release: “MPs Walid Jumblatt and Talal Arslan reaffirm their commitment to freedom of information that remains one of the pillars of democracy in Lebanon, and rejected again all that is likely to undermine this principle, they also reaffirm the freedom of media to disseminate the film and arts in the manner they deem appropriate”.
Censorship… a summary
The last few years, several of l’Orient-Le Jour’s editorialists ranted against two acts of censorship, one by Hezbollah (when its news programme objected against the invitation of Jewish comedian Gad el-Maleh for his alleged ties with Tsahal) and one by the censorship division of the Ministry of Interior (against the film Persepolis). For weeks you had articles and opinion papers that decried “cultural censorship”, “authoritarianism” etc. But not in this case. Why? Because the fight was never against censorship or for the freedom of expression. It was simply an excuse to attack a political party (Hezbollah) or “axis” (Syrian-Iranian). And this illustrates quite well the role journalists and the media have taken for themselves: not that of a 4th estate, participating in the balance of power meant to widen public and private liberties, but that of a political (and geo-political) player.
This type of censorship also show the meaning it has in Lebanon. It’s not about preventing people of seing something. People have access to satellite, the internet and pirated copied that escape all censorship. I personally saw “The Kite” in Lebanon through cable television, and also bought an Israeli by Elia Suleiman in Beirut’s flee market. Censorship is about carving a place in the public space. It’s about asserting a political side’s power over this public space and confirming its quality of representative of a group and its interests.