Born in 1950, Tarek Mitri is Lebanon’s culture minister and has also served intermittently as acting foreign minister. In addition, Dr. Mitri is a prominent academic figure and has taught at the St. Joseph University, Balamand University and the University of Geneva. Mitri earned a doctorate in social sciences from the University of Paris, after studying chemistry and philosophy at the American University of Beirut. As culture minister, Mitri has been a tremendous advocate of freedom of expression in Lebanon, helping to overturn numerous bans on plays and films. NOW Lebanon speaks to the culture minister about censorship in Lebanon, focusing on last month’s controversy surrounding the banning and unbanning of the Oscar-nominated film Persepolis.
NOW Lebanon: General Security decides on whether or not to ban any film or play. In getting the Persepolis ban overturned, what role did you have to play, as a champion of these things in the past?
Dr Tarek Mitri: We have a law regarding censorship [that] I want to change with an alternative law, but we need a parliament!
[This law], which I don’t like and which no one likes, gives General Security the right to censor films, theater plays, books, DVDs and other things. So, they have the authority to do that and what happens is, often, because I’m minister of culture, authors, film makers, play writers, what have you, when they have a problem with censorship, they come to me, as a kind advocate of their freedom. So, I function more as their advocate. I have no legal authority on censorship issues… Every now and then, someone comes to me and says this book was banned, and I call General Security and say what are you doing, how could you ban a book, etc., and I try to convince them that what they’re doing is unacceptable or what have you. And they rescind their decision. This has happened many, many times.
NOW Lebanon: Have you ever tried to have something unbanned, and they said no?
Mitri: Not really. There were three cases that were known to the public. These happened in an unknown, discreet manner – I placed phone calls, and it works. I don’t like it; we [would do] better without such a law. But with this law in existence, that’s the only way. They have the power to ban or unban, so I have to intervene and use moral persuasion; that’s what I do.
But that’s not the full story.
There were three cases – two theater plays and this film – that there was a public controversy about [and] that were known to the public, but there were many other cases where books or films were unbanned but without much noise. In the case of Persepolis, the owner of a company that has the cinema which will play the film came to me with a [DVD] and said, “This is a film that has been banned by General Security, and it’s pirated. You can buy it all over the place in Beirut, and please do something about it.” So, I saw the film, and it has nothing... I mean there are a number of criteria [for issuing a ban]...
NOW Lebanon: What are the criteria?
Mitri: One is public order. The other is religious sentiment, disturbing race and communal relations, and this broadly defines the criteria for banning the film… In my interpretation, and any decent person’s interpretation, [neither] this film, nor any other film I’ve seen so far fits into any of those categories. So I saw the film and found the decision was totally unjustified.
NOW Lebanon: Some people have said the decision was made for political reasons. Do you have any idea why this decision was really made?
Mitri: I am telling you the facts now. I was away, and I arrived, and we had a Council of Ministers meeting, and I immediately mentioned that there is this film and that we have the problem with the General Security, and that I would talk to the Interior Minister [Hassan al-Sabeh], who is the superior of General Security and, in theory, can undo whatever it does. So, I talked to Hassan [al-Sabeh] and said, “Look, it’s crazy; we should unban it,” and I explained to him why. It’s through him that I exercised my pressure on the General Security; [Sabeh] summoned the General Security director.
I don’t know what [the director of General Security’s] motivations were. I know the press said this and that, [but] I don’t want to make a statement about the person, whether political or personal… All I need to say is that he gave reasons to his minister that seemed to suggest that he thinks the film is offensive to Islam and to Iran and brings a peril to communal relations and relations between Lebanon and Iran. He gave those kinds of arguments. I told the minister that these are not convincing arguments. I saw the film, and it doesn’t stir religious emotions. There’s nothing against Islam in it; it’s not Fitna. It’s not anti-Iranian. The woman is Iranian herself; she gave a critical look at Iranian society before and after revolution. What’s the big deal? Films do not make revolutions in Lebanon; politicians make much more violent statements than films!
I put all the moral pressure I could on [Interior Minister Sabeh] to put some authoritative pressure, let’s put it this way, over the unbanning of Persepolis. And this happened within 48 hours, which is fine. Many things take longer!
My role is more as an advocate for the intellectuals and the artists – that’s what the minister of culture is for. I’m doing my job and my duty; I take no particular credit for doing my duty. My duty is to be the advocate of freedom of creation and thought... My authority is more moral than legal, but the fact that I’m the minister [means] I can always bring the matter up in the Council of Ministers and, therefore, ask the minister of the interior to use what his prerogatives to undo what General Security did.
This is not the solution, of course, because if you have another minister of interior who doesn’t listen to you, or who doesn’t look for a solution, it would [not] change that law... General Security should not do these things... It should not be their place to make recommendations to ban or not ban the work of most intellectuals in Lebanon. They are not equipped; they are police officers! Some of these people, though, are quite liberal individually. But there is this old law, and they have this director-general who is very cautious.
[On a previous occasion], this play by Rabih Mroue [How Nancy Wished that Everything was an April Fool’s Joke] raised significant doubt. That time [the director-general] was adamant. He thought that this would reactivate the memory of the war, and this would put Lebanon on fire. I had a public argument with him, and I made statements in the press. I said, “This is what the guy said, this is rubbish, and it’s on the contrary. It reconciled us with ourselves and with each other to look, to remember the past and exercise all our mutual suspicions and fears, and theater does less harm than some of the shouting of politicians we hear on TV.”
We finally got that play unbanned, as well. Prior to that there was another play, Haki Neswan [by Lina Khoury], and I intervened with that, too. These three cases are the known public cases, because there were articles in the press. But other than that, discreetly, every now and then, I intervene.
NOW Lebanon: How often does something like that happen, where you intervene, discreetly or otherwise?
Not very often. We haven’t had many cases. These are three and there may have been another six or seven in the last two years. Sometimes, because censorship and General Security have a bad reputation, people are apprehensive… They worry and think that their film may be banned, and they want me to act preemptively… But it shouldn’t happen at all. And this cannot be stopped except by legislating a new legal framework [for censorship], which will happen sometime when the parliament goes back to work.