Interrogation of play director stirs censorship fears in Lebanon

Palestinian director Awad Awad was taken into custody and questioned after allegedly criticising the president in his play.

Lebanese actors perform a play at the Al-Madina Theater in downtown Beirut [File: Ramzi Haidar/AFP]

Beirut, Lebanon –  Millions of people in cash-strapped Lebanon continue to struggle with staggering price rises and power cuts – their life savings trapped in the banks when they need it the most.

As the Lebanese economy spirals out of control with no solution in sight, much of the general public simply wants to vent.

But after the director of a play about doing just that was interrogated on Monday by agents of the General Security Directorate, some fear they will be unable to even express themselves.

Security forces stopped the Al-Madina Theater on Beirut’s Hamra Street on Saturday night from holding a performance of Tanfiseh – a play that literally means “Vent”. The reason: the director failed to send the script to General Security for approval.

“We do theatre masterclasses every year, and this year, we wanted it to be a form of drama therapy,” director and veteran actress Nidal al-Achkar told Al Jazeera. “We didn’t get formal permission because this was just part of the masterclass.”

The frustrated actors performed some of the play’s songs on the sidewalk to a packed crowd.

The actors felt proud of that show of defiance, but then pride turned to fear once the play’s Palestinian director Awad Awad was summoned two days later. It was not because he did not submit his script to be reviewed, but because he was accused of insulting President Michel Aoun in his play.

Awad was not available for comment, but his lawyer issued a statement saying he denied the claims. The play will not go on, however, without a review.

General Security said in a statement it was ensuring that laws were being obeyed, and dismissed criticism it was suppressing freedom of expression.

‘No means of escape’

Aya Abi Haidar, one of the actresses in the play, said she feared Lebanon’s censorship laws will continue to target artists, especially during the country’s crippling crises.

“I feel that anything we do to express ourselves during this situation is being shut down, which means we have no means of escape,” Abi Haidar to Al Jazeera, citing worsening living conditions such as the struggle to secure fuel.

“But despite trying  to overcome all this to do the play, censorship crept in and banned us from a second performance.”

Lebanon’s censorship regulations have often made it difficult for artists, filmmakers, and script-writers to release material critical of the country.

Al-Achkar said this struggle has gone on for decades. “We campaigned against censorship 50 years ago, and we are doing the same today,” she said. “If artists self-censor then you’re getting rid of creativity and suppressing the imagination.”

With Lebanon struggling to cope with an economic disaster that has pushed three-quarters of the population into poverty, much of the focus has been on making the country’s economy viable again and ending rampant corruption that has plagued it for decades.

Lebanon just formed its first full-fledged government in more than a year last month.

‘There is always fear’

But some observers feared this singular focus might detract from the authorities’ increased stifling of personal freedoms in recent years. Some provisions in Lebanon’s penal code “[criminalise] free speech”, Human Rights Watch noted, and has been used to prevent criticism of political, security, and religious officials.

“Cultural oppression” – as Jad Shahrour, communications officer at Beirut-based rights watchdog Skeyes, describes it – is on the rise.

“Banning films and plays, interrogating filmmakers and writers – it’s worsening for sure,” said Shahrour.

Al-Achkar said the audience should decide whether a play should be performed or not – not the authorities. But she acknowledged achieving full artistic freedom will not be easy.

“The theatre is a platform for everyone to express themselves freely, and we will not stop our battle against censorship,” she said. “But of course, there is always fear.”

Source: Al Jazeera