|Vol. 1 No. 10|| |
|A Lebanese soldier striking a Greenpeace activist earlier this month|
On October 2, Beirut Investigating Magistrate Abdel-Rahman Chehab indicted well-known Lebanese singer Marcel Khalife, in accordance with Article 474 of the Penal Code dealing with blasphemy, for "insulting religious values" by using a verse from the Koran in a song entitled "O Father, It is I, Youssef." The song's lyrics were adapted from a 1992 poem by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish containing the phrase "I saw 11 stars, and the sun and the moon bowing down before me" from the Chapter of Youssef (Joseph) in the Koran. Khalife's trial will be held on November 3, presided over by Judge Ghada Abu Karroum. If convicted, the singer could receive a sentence of up to three years in prison.
The indictment has caused an uproar among Lebanese intellectuals. "It's a shame that on the eve of the 21st century Lebanon resorts to measures reminiscent of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages," said Beirut MP Najah Wakim. "I respect religious leaders but they are no closer to God than anyone of us. Didn't some of them form militias and sanction 'sectarian cleansing' during the war?"1 The Beirut Bar Association is standing solidly behind Khalife.
The two incidents have sparked a broader debate over freedom of expression in Lebanon, particularly freedom of the press. While all foreign publications are heavily censored before being distributed in Lebanon, local publications are not subject to official censorship, largely because it is not needed. Lebanese journalists generally shy away from reporting on the one issue that is off-limits. According to Samir Kassir, a journalist for Lebanon's leading daily newspaper An-Nahar, "the only thing you don't write critically or mockingly about is Syrian President Hafez el Assad."2
"Fear of what might happen if you write something is often enough to keep a reporter from writing it," said Kamal el Battal, director of the Lebanese human rights group Mirsad. "Many journalists don't want to get in trouble, they just want their pay-check." El Battal has tried to organize seminars on the issue of press freedom, but few Lebanese journalists seem interested. "There is no freedom of the press or of expression, we're even getting close to a point where there will be no more freedom of thought."3
1 "Supporters say Khalife charges 'like Inquisition'," The Daily Star, 5 October 1999.
2 "Waiting for Others to Stop Censorship," IPS, 7 October 1999.