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Lebanon and Freedom of Speech

In this article, the Lebanese author and lawyer Alexandre Najjar shortly explains the historical significance of Lebanese freedom of expression for the Arab world and the challenges it is facing today.

Credits Text: Alexandre Najjar Translation from French: Emma Ramadan August 20 2021

Lebanon has always been considered a bastion of free speech in the Arab world. The preamble to the Lebanese Constitution states that “Lebanon is a democratic parliamentary republic based upon the respect of public freedoms, freedom of opinion and freedom of belief,” and Article 13 claims that “the freedom of opinion, expression through speech and writing, the freedom of the press, the freedom of assembly, and the freedom of association, are guaranteed within the scope of the law.”[1] For a long time, Beirut was a refuge for intellectuals persecuted in their own countries. “Beirut is our tent. Beirut is our star,” wrote Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, who lived in the Lebanese capital. The local press regularly publishes articles that would be censored in other Arab countries, for example Moulhaq, the former cultural supplement of the paper An-Nahar, which long ago opened its columns to Palestinian authors or Syrian opponents. Similarly, Lebanese publishing houses often welcomed writers whose works were “undesirable” in their native countries, such as the Egyptian writer and Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, whose book Awlad haretna (Children of Gebelawi) was published in Beirut in 1962 by Dar al-Adab and not reissued in Egypt until… 2006!

A Heavy Toll
But freedom of speech has a cost. Some journalists have paid a high price for their commitment to freedom and have been targeted by those who use death as a tool of censorship. These journalists include Kamel Mroueh, Salim Lawzi, Riad Taha, Samir Kassir, Gebran Tueni, and twenty-five of their peers, assassinated in a cowardly fashion, not to mention May Chidiac, a “living martyr” and survivor of a car bomb attack, who recounted her story in a poignant testimony entitled Le ciel m’attendra in which she writes: “For here, at the vanguard of the Arab world, journalists are the guardians of civic duty and citizenship who keep fighting and never give in to the temptation of resignation, which only leads to impunity. In Beirut more than anywhere else, journalists champion freedom." On the other hand, Lebanese literature has rarely faced such challenges, as if fiction served as a protective screen between the author and the censor. Whether they write in Arabic, French, or English, Lebanese novelists and poets have dared to broach “scandalous” topics such as war, sexuality, and the female body, without having to justify it. But the murder in February 2021 of the publisher Lokman Slim, founder of Dar al-Jadeed, served as a reminder that no one is safe from “liquidation”—although his murder has been linked more to his criticism of Hezbollah than to the publications of his press, which has just won the Sheikh Zayed Book Award in the Publishing and Technology category.

An Effective Observer
The SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom was created in 2007, the day after the murder of Samir Kassir, to track these violations and abuses against freedom of the press and culture in the Middle East. On May 11, 2021, the center spoke out against the attack on eight journalists covering protests in Jerusalem. According to its director, Ayman Mhanna, the reason Lebanon is ranked 107 out of 180 countries by Reporters Without Borders in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index is due as much to a climate of impunity as to a lack of protection.He believes we must establish a new law to protect journalists, restructure press and publisher syndicates, and, on the political level, pledge “a desire to make freedom sacred.” And so we observe this uniquely Lebanese paradox: freedom of speech in the media with no impediment or taboo, which operates with much more vigor than in the majority of other Arab countries, but with frequent violations targeting periodicals and journalists. We can deduce from this that freedom of speech is never guaranteed: it is the fruit of a permanent fight.

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