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Lebanon crisis

Play director questioned in Lebanon, fueling freedom worries

The Lebanese state says it respects freedom of expression, but human rights groups have expressed concern in recent years over the issue in a country where media have traditionally operated more openly than in many other Arab states.

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A theater director whose play was reported to the Lebanese authorities for allegedly criticizing the president was released without charge after questioning on Monday, his lawyer said, in a case that has fueled worry about freedom of expression in Lebanon.

The director, Awad Awad, was also summoned on the grounds the play was staged without the permission of a security agency that must approve performances under the country’s censorship laws, the lawyer, Ayman Raad, said.

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Presented as part of a student workshop at Beirut’s Al Madina Theatre on Friday, the improvised performance dealt with the relationship between people and the authorities in oppressive regimes around the world, Awad said.

He said the play did not mention anybody in Lebanon and if anyone felt targeted, that was their problem. Awad told Reuters after he was questioned on Monday he would secure the official permission needed to stage the performance.

Reuters could not independently verify what the play was about. A statement issued about the incident by General Security, the agency which implements Lebanon’s censorship laws, did not provide details about its content.

In the statement, General Security rejected what it described as attempts to portray the matter as a violation of freedoms, saying that it was applying the law and would continue to do so.

General Security said that the play by Awad, a Palestinian, had been performed “without passing through the legal path” via the media office in the General Security directorate.

The Lebanese state says it respects freedom of expression, but human rights groups have expressed concern in recent years over the issue in a country where media have traditionally operated more openly than in many other Arab states.

Social media activists, commentators and journalists were summoned by security agencies in dozens of cases between 2019 and 2020 for allegedly defaming President Michel Aoun and criticizing the army or parliamentarians, said Sahar Mandour, Lebanon researcher at Amnesty International.

While the number of such cases had dipped in the wake of last year’s catastrophic Beirut port explosion and as Lebanon descended deeper into an economic meltdown, she expressed worry that this could mark the start of a new wave.

“We are very concerned with today’s summoning,” she said on Monday.

“This is a scary warning that the iron fist is in the making again.”

Nidal Al Achkar, the founder and art director at Al Madina Theatre, said somebody in the audience had “told security that we are doing something against the government and president”.

“There was no such thing,” she told Reuters, denying that Lebanese leaders had been attacked during the performance.

“They are young people who are very angry, expressing themselves about the situation in Lebanon - lack of electricity lack of money, they have no work,” she said, describing the mood of the performers during the improvised performance.

Still, the theatre management took the decision to cancel a second performance of the play on Saturday until the censors had approved it. “We considered it was a workshop ... in festivals we don’t give our text to the General Security,” she said.

Under Lebanese law, the branch of General Security that deals with censorship reads the scripts of plays before deciding whether to give permission for them to be performed.

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