‘The Post’ Gets Good Reviews After Lebanon Reverses Ban
Outcry by citizens led government to overturn ban on Israel-affiliated film
The reversal in Lebanon of a ban on director Steven Spielberg’s movie, The Post, has sparked renewed debate over freedom of expression in the country, particularly as it relates to Israel.
The film chronicles the Washington Post’s efforts in the 1970s to publish the so-called Pentagon Papers, detailing U.S. military activity in Vietnam. An overarching theme of the film is press freedom, a right that some groups contend has been weakened in recent years.
After initially banning the movie—due to Spielberg’s financial contributions to Israel following the 2006 war against the Lebanese-based Hizbullah—the Ministry of the Interior overturned the decision amid a public outcry. Israel and Lebanon technically remain in a state of war, making communication between citizens of the two nations illegal.
Hizbullah, which effectively controls the Lebanese parliament and is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and several other countries, condemned the reversal, according to the Associated Press.
After premiering last Thursday in Lebanese theaters, more than 6,300 tickets had been sold through the end of Sunday, according to the movie’s distributor. Bassem Eid, product manager for Empire Cinemas in Lebanon, said opening weekends for movies typically see around 4,000 admissions. Ticket sales for ‘The Post’ accounted for 10 percent of the market share for all movies showed in Lebanon between Thursday and Sunday.
The irony of the ban—the most recent in a wave of censorship by the government—has not been lost on advocacy groups. “It’s funny that [the Lebanese government would] try to ban a movie on the role of the free press… [even] while here it is trying to silence many journalists,” Gino Raidy, Vice President of MARCH, a Lebanon-based pro-freedom of expression organization, told The Media Line. “The censorship system is pretty broken.”
Among the 180 countries rated by the non-governmental organization Reporters Without Borders (MSF), Lebanon ranked 99th in its 2017 World Press Freedom Index. The NGO cites the detention and imprisonment of bloggers and journalists among its justifications for the rating.
Paradoxically, the country is widely considered one of the freest in the Arab world.
Nevertheless, government censorship has been imposed on the Internet, television, radio, literature and other forms of media and communication, according to a database compiled by MARCH. In the past, bans have been enforced on the grounds of politics, religion and immorality, with a specific emphasis on Israel.
“The Arab League, of which Lebanon is a member, has passed a boycott of Israel,” Dr. Nabil Dajani, Professor of Communications and Media Studies at the American University of Beirut, explained to The Media Line. “[Lebanon’s] laws [technically] provide freedom of expression [like] most countries in the world. The problem is…it depends on the moods of groups and officials in the government.”
Activists similarly complain about the arbitrary enforcement of the law. In this respect, several of Spielberg’s films have over the past few years been shown without issue in Lebanon, including Jurassic World and Transformers.
Though the Arab League boycott was imposed decades ago, Dr. Dajani suspects U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision in December to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel may have been a catalyst for the recent increase in censorship. Wonder Woman, for example, starring Israeli actress Gal Gadot, and Jungle, a film depicting the survival story of an Israeli man and produced by an Israeli, were both banned this year in Lebanon.
“My issue is with the [criteria used to judge] what is considered a movie associated with Israel,” Elie Fares, a Lebanese movie blogger who lives in the U.S., wrote in an email to The Media Line. “Is it Israel-affiliated if one of the cast members is Israeli but that isn’t reflected in the movie’s content? Is it Israel-affiliated if the director donated money to Israel?”
Dr. Dajani, however, says Lebanese law clearly prohibits any Israel-related material and attributes the government’s flip-flop on The Post to politicians’ desire to please constituents prior to the upcoming May elections.
MARCH’s Raidy said that while he does not support official censorship of the arts, he accepts the right of individuals to boycott what they please. “Boycotting is a personal choice, it’s not forced upon others [like a ban],” he concluded.
(Dina Berliner is a Student Intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program)