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Playboy, good; Sinatra, bad: Lebanon’s take on free speech

Playboy, good; Sinatra, bad: Lebanon’s take on free speech

The Arab world might be notorious for its censorship, but in Lebanon freedom of speech is alive and well. Or at least a Middle East equivalent of the term.

August 11, 2008 7:31 by

Lebanon takes pride in being one of the most liberal countries in the region, with few regulations restricting freedom of expression. In part, this stems from confidence in advertising and media professionals not to stir up trouble without good reason.

“We respect a simple rule: Our freedom stops where others’ begins,” says Antonio Vincenti, general manager of outdoor-advertising supplier Pikasso. In other words, expression should be encouraged as long as it doesn’t curtail the liberty of others. “The system implemented in a country such as Lebanon is really good. Major brands, that are respectable and accountable, cannot afford any cheap provocation anyway, and small brands with no equity are kept from disturbing the country.”

DON’T MENTION IT. Basically, rules are clear, although they vary a little across different media. A few topics are considered sensitive and require caution: the female body (although lingerie and swimsuits labels can be moderately risqué), alcohol (in certain regions) and anything that might be seen as Israeli propaganda. Lebanon scrupulously abides by the Arab League’s ban on this, and the blacklist ranges from Schindler’s List to songs by Frank Sinatra.

Theoretically, ad agencies are required to submit every ad to the Censorship General Security Department, under the Interior Ministry. Most of the time, the media take ads to the censorship office in bulk to save time.

“We get an answer within two hours, and we usually have no more than five rejections and five modification requirements per year,” says Vincenti.

Modification requirements are quite common, and are easy to deal with, says Kamil Kuran, managing director of Leo Burnett Levant: “It’s usually not a blatant, flat-out rejection. I used to work in Saudi Arabia where they would hand us a booklet telling us precisely what we could and couldn’t do. Here, it’s more like, ‘Guys, be careful, this might cause an issue.’ So we anticipate, any time we feel we have something racy or controversial. We have a sense of what will or won’t pass, so we call them and ask if it can fly or not,” he says.

PRETTY MUCH ANYTHING. For instance, some retouching was required on one of Leo Burnett’s latest ads for flower shop Exotica, showing a woman’s chest. It looked like lingerie but wasn’t meant to sell bras. “The cleavage was showing slightly too much, so we had to play with it to get it to pass through censorship,” says Kuran. “Beyond sex and religion, we can pretty much put anything out there. Given all the dynamics, Lebanon is a good place to communicate and do advertising.”

In Lebanon, “girlie” magazines such as Playboy and Penthouse (but no gay titles) are available in stores, albeit wrapped in black bags. Magazines and newspapers are subject to a more flexible rule than advertising, says Pierre Stephan, general manager of Levant, a distributor of foreign publications. “Some specialized publications, dealing with sensitive topics such as religion, politics and the military – this often has to do with Israel – must be presented to the censorship office for approval,” he says. Around 50 of his titles are on this list of titles that must be vetted, including daily papers. “There are no official bans, but we might not be granted permission to distribute them. As for other titles, it’s up to us.”

Press distributors are therefore expected to check each publication themselves and ask the censorship office for guidance if they feel the need. “We send copies and wait for approval,” says Stephan. “If we don’t receive it, we don’t distribute them. This only happens around four or five times a year.”

RELIGIOUS GUIDANCE. In a country as volatile as Lebanon, religion is a trickier issue than sex when it comes to censorship. Guidelines get a little murky when dealing with works that might incite religious dissent, damage morals or undermine state security, and the media is sometimes left to their own judgment.

In some cases – mostly related to religion – press distributors take it upon themselves not to put specific issues on the market. “Everything can be mended except for religious offenses,” says Stephan. “It is quite evident that the Danish caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed … wouldn’t be received well here. We just have to use common sense. What’s tolerated in Western countries could create tremendous and pointless tensions in a country without political stability.”

Caution is also a matter of being practical. “You want to avoid [using religion] because even if censorship allows it, it’s tricky,” says Kuran. “From a pure branding perspective, you simply don’t want to go into that in such a religiously charged and sectarian country. It’s not a smart thing to do. If it’s a message of unity to promote [peaceful] cohabitation, that’s excellent for a brand. But if it’s something that pokes fun at a religion, it won’t work.”

In a social and religious climate such as Lebanon’s, judicious mapping and targeting the right crowds are vital. Relying on geo-marketing studies, Pikasso sells outdoor campaigns in its 47 regional networks depending on each region’s characteristics and sensibilities.

Harsh reactions are possible: In the southern areas of Lebanon, some billboards have been defaced by offended locals.

“We think national, but for the Exotica campaign for instance, the client only has stores in certain areas,” says Kuran. “The bulk of his retail business is in Beirut so it’s not an issue. But if we had to put ads in the suburbs, we would definitely be scratching our heads a million times before doing that.”

CUTTING ROOM. Even movie distributors do not find much reason to complain. Very few feature films have been forbidden, and in those cases where they have been banned, it has most often been after religious authorities intervened. This was the case with The Da Vinci Code, when both the book and the film were banned.

Recently, and publicly, the ban last April of Persepolis, an animated movie set against the backdrop of the Iranian revolution – which was screened in the UAE – was lifted by Culture minister Tareq Mitri (who is said to have watched it on a pirated disc) a few days after it was imposed.

“We abide by the blacklist established in 1973 by the Arab League with regards to Israel,” says Bassam Eid, the production manager at movie distributors Circuit Empire. “Other than that, only pornographic movies are forbidden. Lebanon is much freer than most countries in that regard.”

But he says the situation for DVDs is trickier. “It’s easy to cut films, as we did for the name of the [Jewish] producer of Charlie’s Angels, for instance,” he continues. “But we cannot do it on DVDs. This is ridiculous, as in most cases, illegal copies of the same movies are available on the street for less than a dollar, or simply on cable TV.”

So, for Eid, the problem is not how to respect censorship’s rules so much as to find a way to implement them over the whole market, including illegal providers.

However, Mitri has been drafting a censorship abolition law, proposing the setting up of a committee of “wise men” instead of the Censorship General Security Department. But the draft law has been stuck in the administrative pipelines in the absence of a functioning parliament. The Lebanese media and ad agencies aren’t clamoring for change, though.

“We don’t necessarily ask for the end of censorship when it’s well implemented and applied to everybody,” says Eid.

For now, it seems, most people are happy for censorship in Lebanon to run uncut.

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