Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat-“Basmat Watan”, a slapstick program broadcast on LBCI television in Lebanon was the center of controversy recently when an episode lampooned Hassan Nasrallah, the Shiaa leader and Hezbollah’s Secretary- General. His supporters took to the streets of Beirut and a violent demonstration ensued. Meanwhile, the program was taken off-air under the pretext of the start of the World Cup in Germany.
Hezbollah justified its supporters’ actions and claimed they were a spontaneous reaction. However, one important question remains: Is it forbidden to criticize Lebanese politicians, especially when they are also religious symbols?
Pierre Daher, LBCI’s Chairman, told Asharq al Awsat his organization recognized Nasrallah’s special religious status and respect of the constitution, which considers all Lebanese as equal. However, he noted it was difficult to separate the politician from the religious leader, especially if a single individual combined both positions.
Charbel Khalil, the program’s producer, told Asharq al Awsat defended the show and said the sketch did not warrant such a reaction. He blamed the outcry that followed on people’s repressed anger. “Let them convince me: how did I do wrong? The inclusion of Nasrallah in the show was not motivated by a desire to insult him or seek revenge. In my 11-year career, I have criticized all political leaders and have never faced such a situation.”
On being summoned by the General Security directorate for further investigation, Khalil indicated that, after consulting with Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and the acting Interior Minister Ahmad Fatfat, he was instructed not to meet with the authorities. “The media is accountable to two authorities, the Information Minister Ghazi al Aridi and the National Media Council”, he added.
For its part, the National Media Council discussed the issue and ruled that LBCI committed a violation by broadcasting the offensive scene. It also forwarded the case to the Cabinet in order to take the appropriate action. It also called on the television station to apologize and noted that, in the current climate in Lebanon, “Attitudes are measured according to the divisions in the country and not the law.”
Hezbollah’s media official, Hussein Rahal, told Asharq al Awsat, “Freedom of expression is one of the distinguishing and core characteristics of Lebanon. With its absence, Lebanon would lose one of the reasons for its existence. But, this freedom has to be subservient to the law and respectful of cultural pluralism.”
“What happened violated several clauses of the media and publications law, as well as human rights principles and the standard of not defaming individuals or personally insulting them”
In addition, Rahal claimed that the episode mocking Hezbollah’s leader was distasteful and did not respect the private beliefs of every section of Lebanese society. The issue, he added, was not about “sanctifying” Nasrallah and terrorizing his critics. “Hezbollah’s Secretary-General, like any other public figure, is subject to criticism, but not defamation. This applies to all religious and national symbols in Lebanon and the Arab world.”
The Hezbollah official agreed that Lebanon was currently living through a period where the media has been politically mobilized. “We are not asking for special treatment. We only ask the law be applied. Our entire system is ill, not just the media. We are in need or rational, objective media but no one which is controlled.”
Following the violent demonstration, Pierre Sadeq, the prominent Lebanese cartoonist, drew Nasrallah adding the phrase “Made in Lebanon”. When Hezbollah reprimanded him for the caricature, Sadeq contacted the Secretary-General’s office and re-affirmed his commitment to freedom of expression, throughout a career which has spanned forty years and during which he has not spared any political or religious figure, no matter what sect they belonged to. “It is important the media apply self-control in order to safeguard the country’s private affairs. However, the scene in question does not deserve all this violent reaction.”
Recalling his own bitter experience with censorship, Sadeq said, “I was prosecuted for my drawings on a number of occasions in the 1960s and 1970s and appeared in front of a military court. At the time, however, political sensitivity was to blame. Religious zeal started with Imam Khomeini’s ascendancy to power in 1979. We have seen a change toward insularity. Nowadays, we are witnessing a fundamentalist attack on the media.”
Yasmine Dabbous, a lecturer in media studies at the Lebanese American University, said the recent controversy was not connected to media law but, instead, centered on the fine line between freedom of expression and the safeguarding of moral and psychological rights. “Through these rights, the media can distinguish between right and wrong. The inability to differentiate between the two leads to numerous problems.”
“So long as Nasrallah is involved in politics, the right of cartoonists and comic are preserved.” However, she admitted, it was difficult sometimes to distinguish between religion and politics. One solution, she added, would be for the media to “practice self-censorship and reject outside pressure.”