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Rocking Against Censorship In Lebanon


One of Lebanon's best-known music groups, Mashrou' Leila, was recently barred from playing at a festival there. Christian leaders called some of the group's lyrics, quote, "blasphemous," and it made international headlines. As activists in Lebanon tell NPR's Ruth Sherlock, Mashrou' Leila is just one of many bands, books and movies that are being censored in the country.


RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Recently, a group of Lebanese bands got together for a protest concert...


BASSEM DEAIBESS: This goes to everyone who wants their freedom...


DEAIBESS: ...For the queers...


DEAIBESS: ...For those who are different...


DEAIBESS: ...For those who live alternative lives...


DEAIBESS: ...And those who want just freedom.

SHERLOCK: Bassem Deaibess of the band Blaakyum is used to challenging Lebanon's censors. He's been detained twice and even jailed once for his music.


BLAAKYUM: (Singing unintelligibly.)

SHERLOCK: Hard rock and Metallica, of the type played by Deaibess' band, has been labeled as the work of Satan by religious leaders in Lebanon and its performers accused of being devil worshippers. But at this concert in Beirut, the young crowd was happy to join Deaibess' rebellion. They headbang to the music and fling themselves into a mosh pit near the stage. The event was hastily organized by activists to honor Mashrou' Leila after the popular music group was barred from performing at a festival in Lebanon.


BLAAKYUM: (Singing) I got my chance for freedom. This chance just slipped away.

SHERLOCK: Lebanon is relatively liberal compared to its neighbors in the Middle East. There's a healthy art and film scene, and you can find a range of opinions in the country's media.

But Ayman Mhanna, the executive director of the Samir Kassir Foundation, which works to protect these freedoms, says he sees a pattern of growing repression in the country.

AYMAN MHANNA: It's happening while there is a surge in summoning journalists and bloggers and activists on social media and actually prison sentences against some journalists.

SHERLOCK: He lists films and books that have been barred from publication or cultural events that have been canceled. In some ways, this isn't new. Lebanon's Bureau of Censorship, buried deep in the security department, has been active since the 1940s.

Israel is one sensitive topic. In 2017, the hit movie "Wonder Woman" was banned because it features an Israeli actress. But activists like Mhanna say that more and more is being censored on the grounds of religious or sectarian identity. Sometimes the ban comes from the government. Other times, it's from pressure on groups hosting events.

Naji Hayek, a member of the Free Patriotic Movement, one of Lebanon's largest Christian political parties, led the effort to get concert organizers to cancel Mashrou' Leila’s recent appearance. He sees the Christian minority as being under threat in Lebanon and says censorship is a way of protecting Christian identity.

NAJI HAYEK: When you say you're a Christian of Lebanon, this is not limited to going to church. This is not limited in the way you think or you believe in Jesus Christ. It is also a political contest. It's also a political situation.

SHERLOCK: Gino Raidy, a blogger and member of March, an NGO that tracks censorship, says there's a growing tit-for-tat battle where all sides push government censors to ban anything they see as potentially offensive as a way to assert dominance.

GINO RAIDY: They've been very emboldened these days - all sides - whether it's Christian factions or Muslim factions. And the problem is it's a vicious cycle where they learn and feed off from each other. And that's what's making it worse now, honestly.

SHERLOCK: The casualty of all this, he says, is freedom of expression.

Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Beirut.


Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.