Nadine Elali


“Yes to freedom of expression! Unless criticizing the state, God, the Prophet, Christ, the president, the Church, the Bible, the Quran, the martyrs, the Resistance, the Lebanese army, the civil war, sectarianism, the custodian of the two holy mosques, the pope, national unity, friendly countries and neighboring countries.” This is the text of the cartoon on the front page of the newsletter “FREE” which is currently being distributed around university campuses in Lebanon.
FREE, which stands for “Freedom and Right of Expression Event,” is the first issue of a series of uncensored newsletters produced by the Lebanese NGO March. It highlights censorship issues in Lebanon and focuses on the importance of freedom of expression following too many instances of censorship its producers say have been occurring recently in Lebanon.

“We started with the right of freedom of expression,” says Lea Baroudi, a co-founder of March, “because in a country like Lebanon, where there’s so much cultural diversity, if we do not accept the different opinions of one another, we cannot live together.”

In a country with 18 different religious communities that don’t think alike, there’s a need to “agree to disagree,” Baroudi says.

March is a civil movement that focuses on raising awareness about basic rights and civic duties. It aims at instilling these values at an individual level while simultaneously fostering dialogue and reconciliation between Lebanon’s diverse communities.

The name March was chosen for the many meanings it holds for Lebanese, Baroudi explains. It means “to march forward, toward attaining an objective,” and for the month of March, “which has divided the Lebanese into two camps, March 8 and March 14,” she says, “and to say that March is for all.”
Jad Ghorayeb, another March cofounder, explains that the idea behind the movement began when Lebanese authorities banned the screening of the Iranian movie “Green Days ” just before it was to be screened at the Beirut International Film Festival in June 2011 following an appeal by the Iranian ambassador. The ambassador objectified to the portrayal of the pro-democracy protests that followed the disputed presidential election in Iran in 2009.

“They had become too many,” Ghorayeb says. “We saw the censorship of Danielle Arbid’s movie, of Lara Fabien’s concert, of the controversy surrounding the Lebanese history book, and as they increased, we felt the need for a serious initiative.”

So Ghorayeb and a group of friends set up a Facebook page called STOP Cultural Terrorism to document censorship events in Lebanon.

March launched its event Thursday at the American University of Beirut (AUB) in collaboration with the school’s Discovery Club and the Human Rights and Peace Club.

AUB’s Student Affairs Office prevented the distribution of the newsletter on campus, allowing for it to be passed out at the university’s main entrance only. It did, however, permit that a dialogue between students and the activists take place on campus on condition that there be no talk of politics. 

The decision to ban the newsletter from being distributed across campus was not related to the content of the material, said a Student Affairs Office representative who did not want to be named. It is an administrative policy that there be no flyers, newsletters or products relating to any non-university initiative handed out on campus, he added. 

But many students managed to obtain a copy of the newsletter. Mohamad Oleimi, a third-year graphic design student at AUB, says that the newsletter speaks of issues he had not been aware of, and that “forbidding freedom of expression is forbidding art.”

Oleimi was present at the dialogue between students and activists, which featured Semaan Khawam, a graffiti artist who was arrested for spray painting an image of an army soldier holding a gun, as a speaker.

“I was detained because I drew a soldier. I was detained because I drew something regarding our civil war. It is prohibited that we talk of the civil war,” Khawam says. He was charged in February for disrupting public order and is now awaiting a verdict on June 20. He will either pay a fee of 7oo,000 LL ($466) or serve three months in jail.

At the dialogue, Baroudi emphasized that the problem lies with the prevailing censorship law, which is vague enough to be interpreted in many ways, as well as with the Lebanese people, who put pressure on authorities to censor things they find offensive. “What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist,” she told the crowd. “And so what if it offends? This doesn’t mean that one has to shut it up.”

“But we live in Lebanon,” a young student named Anthony answered, “and in Lebanon one cannot say anything without offending another person’s belief or religion, and so one goes on practicing self-censorship to avoid conflict. Because when in trouble, we are unprotected.”

Anthony’s remarks open way to March’s second initiative, which aims at underlining civic duties, among which is the right to vote and to voice one’s opinion. It will be launched next year.

But in the meantime, March will continue to visit universities in all areas of Lebanon and hold their debates. On their agenda is a freedom of expression festival that is scheduled to take place in September, as well as setting up a museum to visually document censored material in Lebanon, which will also be transmitted virtually online.

  • Maria

    good job! but what about the new internet censorship law that no one raised a voice againsT?

    April 25, 2012

  • Fadi

    Good job March. Any initiative that promotes freedom of speach and opinion is a step in the right direction. Censorship is an insult as it takes the population for fools and blind sheep. Censorship is a disease that compresses frustration, just like the pressure cooker in our kitchen. Censorship is anyway easily circomvented with internet, word of mouth and a million different ways. In the end, I see nothing positive coming from censorship except giving a false sense of satisfaction for the party engaging in it and an added feeling of frustration and outrage by those who are censored or interested in what the censored had to say.

    April 23, 2012