BEIRUT — Controversy over whether and when Lebanese cinemas will be allowed to screen the "Barbie" film, or simply cut out some scenes, has brought questions about the country's vague censorship rules back to the surface.
Earlier in August, caretaker Culture Minister Mohamad Mortada requested General Security, via the Ministry of Interior, to ban the film, which centers around the popular American doll Barbie. According to him, the film "goes against moral and religious values in Lebanon, as it encourages perversity and gender transformation while calling for the rejection of patriarchy and ridiculing the role of mothers."
Citizens across Lebanon took to social media platforms to hail the call for censorship and others to oppose it.
But how exactly does censorship in Lebanon work? Who decides what can be aired in cinemas and what can’t?
L’Orient Today speaks with Jad Shahrour, a communications officer for the civil society group Samir Kassir Foundation, which advocates for media freedom, to get some answers.
“Lebanon does not have a censorship law, and as with most of the regulations in the country, the issue of censorship has been mixed with some of the Lebanese society's norms,” Shahrour explained.
“The censorship committee, which works under the management of General Security, is made up of seven representatives from seven ministries who sit together and discuss what can be aired and what cannot."
"Oddly enough," he continued, "or maybe not odd because this is how things in Lebanon are run, none of the people in the committee have a background in arts."
The committee can decide whether to completely ban a film or edit it by removing some scenes, Shahrour said.
And this is done "without a clear list of criteria of what should be banned,” Shahrour explained.
“A few years ago a Moroccan film was banned because it had a part criticizing the Moroccan king, and the committee claimed that airing it in Lebanon would harm the country’s diplomatic relationship with Morocco,” he said.
Shahrour explained that the issue of censorship in Lebanon will remain controversial and unclear "as long as the censorship committee is affiliated with a security entity in the country and not a cultural one."
Censorship committee ‘playing tricks’
“There's a trick used by the censorship committee when it comes to wanting to ban movies being aired by festivals in Lebanon and international festivals held in the country. They delay granting the approval to air the film until after the festival is over,” Shahrour explained.
There is also another trick used and has been made up based on society’s norms, Shahrour told L’Orient Today.
“This trick is called the ‘resumption according to the opinion of spiritual institutions.’ This suggests a process of restarting or resuming the [censorship] process based on the viewpoint or perspective of spiritual institutions,” Shahrour said.
For example, when there is a movie that has a scene about a priest, a nun, or a sheikh, the movie is shown to a spiritual leader of the religion or sect in question and they decide whether the film or scene is offensive or not.
"In such situations, it's entirely up the the religious figure to choose whether the movie will be aired, banned or if the supposedly offensive scene will just be edited out, which is weird because I don’t think this is the role of religious figures,” Shahrour said.
“Since last year we have been trying to raise awareness on the issue of censorship in Lebanon. In countries [with clear regulations], such committees usually only designate the appropriate age for each movie by checking such as themes of crime, violence and nudity and based on that decide which age is appropriate for watching those movies in the cinema,” he said.
“You can't tell people what they can watch and what they can’t, rather citizens should have the option to watch whatever they want and then personally decide what they think or make of the content."