Lebanon’s censorship laws have struck again – or have they? Hezbollah: the Global Footprint of the Party of God was banned this week from being sold in Lebanon, said author Matthew Levitt, whose book was released in the US one week ago. But General Security, responsible for referring controversial books to Lebanon’s Ministry of Information, repeatedly denied they had banned it. A series of contradicting accounts has shed light on the convolutedness of Lebanon’s censorship process, and, more dangerously, the self-censorship practiced by Lebanese companies themselves.
“In an email with my publisher, we were told the book was officially banned,” said Levitt, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. In emails obtained by NOW, a representative of Levant Express, one of the two main Lebanese book distributors, informed both Levitt and his publisher that Levant submitted “a review copy” of Levitt’s book to Lebanon’s General Security in line with standard operating procedures. According to Levant, General Security then refused to authorize its distribution. Levant’s Sales and Marketing Manager Jacques Abou Zeid told NOW, “We sent the copy [to General Security], and we got a negative response that the book is banned, and we cannot bring it to Lebanon.”
But calls to General Security revealed that its office never received a request from Levant. A public relations officer told NOW that distributing companies submit copies of the book in question, and “we take a look at it. If the book has something in it that contradicts Lebanese laws, we send it to the Minister of Information. We tell him that this book has the following issues, and he makes the decision.”
This process was never initiated for The Global Footprint. “[Levant] does not have any record with us of trying to bring the book here,” the officer said. Another General Security officer, First Lieutenant Sami Azzam, confirmed that the book had never been submitted.
Without being presented to General Security by Levant, then, the book remains officially unbanned. “If we had banned it, there would be a million different names [in our records] that the book would be under,” the public relations officer told NOW. “It’s not showing up at all. We don’t even know what the book is about. Maybe it shouldn’t be banned.”
The story doesn’t end there, however. In a phone conversation on October 9, Levant’s director, Pierre Stephan, gave NOW a third account of what happened, claiming that Levant had already presented a draft of the book to General Security, who had yet to provide a response. Curiously, Azzam told NOW that a representative from Levant presented a copy of Levitt’s book to General Security on the morning of October 10, seventeen days after telling the author it was banned.
Why, then, did Levant inform Levitt that the book was banned before submitting it to General Security? A look at Lebanon’s tangled censorship process indicates that this may be a case of self-censorship, an increasingly common practice. Lea Baroudi, from the Lebanese anti-censorship campaign MARCH, explained that book distributors like Levant and Ciel incur costs when they try to bring in publications that are likely to get banned. Instead, they pre-emptively “ban” the draft themselves and tell the authors that Lebanon’s General Security had refused their request to bring the publication to Lebanon.
Charbel Haddad,* a representative of a Lebanese distributing company familiar with the case of Levitt’s book, confirmed that self-censorship by Levant is exactly what happened to The Global Footprint. Haddad told NOW that for books with “sensitive” topics such as Levitt’s, members of distributing companies like Levant will flip through a few pages and decide that it’s not worth sending to General Security.
“We see titles with Hezbollah or Israel in them, we read a few pages and look at the pictures, and sometimes we ask our friends in General Security,” Haddad said. Expressing certainty that The Global Footprint, formally submitted to General Security on October 10, would be banned anyway, Haddad said that distributing companies are saving themselves trouble by filtering out potentially controversial books.
Baroudi points the finger at a censorship process that is hardly navigable. Confusion about the respective jurisdictions of General Security and the Ministry of Information, different processes for various types of media, and a lack of updated laws or processes, all mean that distributing companies, publishing houses, and government agencies are not held accountable for ad hoc censorship procedures. For example, both Baroudi and Haddad told NOW that General Security never sends a letter or a formal statement to the censored work’s owner explaining the reason for the ban, while Levant’s Abou Zaid claimed that the company had indeed received such a letter.
“[Distributing companies] don’t want to show that they practice self-censorship, so it’s very delicate,” said Baroudi. “If the law was clearer, people would to know what to expect. We’re against all kinds of censorship, but while we wait, let the process be clear.”
“The problem is that the publishers, and everyone else, contribute to it by practicing self-censorship.”
* Name has been changed because the interviewee was not authorized to speak with the press.