Saturday, November 7, 2015

Samandal, censorship and living in the dark ages...

On December of 2009, and with the financial support of the Ministry of Culture as part of "Beirut Book Capital of the World", Samandal put out its 7th anthology in collaboration with the Belgian publishing house, L’employé du Moi, with further support from the French Cultural Center (CCF) in Beirut and the Belgian Ministry of Culture in Brussels. This publication was the fruit of a year-long collaboration between comic artists in Lebanon and their partners in Belgium, spanning several lectures and workshops, and launched at an exhibition at the CCF with the help of the UNESCO fund.
Four months later, three of the four Samandal editors that worked on that book were charged by the public attorney with a) inciting sectarian strife b) denigrating religion c) publishing false news and d) defamation and slander.
After five years of legal proceedings, we were found guilty on the basis of article 25 of the publications law, and on April 28, 2015 we were fined 10,000,000 LL each ($20,000 in total), equal to two years and nine months in jail on failure of payment. This incrimination, instigated by religious institutions and sustained by the state, has crippled Samandal and threatens to bring our decade-long career in comics to an end.
We began Samandal as a volunteer-based, non-profit organization in 2007 because we felt that comics were an underrepresented medium in our part of the world. We wanted to create a platform to tell stories from Lebanon and the Middle East, as well as to bring independent comics from around the world to a local audience. Alongside publishing comics, we also organized countless workshops, comics jams, international artist exchanges, and lectures, opening up the dialogue to include artists from different disciplines, and along with Metropolis Art Cinema have co-founded Beirut Animated, the biennial animation festival in Beirut.
It thus came as a surprise when we found out that the state had charged us with inciting sectarian strife. Our case began with a letter sent by the minister of information to the minister of justice requesting litigation against Samandal on account of “Christian personalities” finding two panels in two separate comics offensive to religion. The minister of justice in turn referred the case to the public prosecutor at the court of cassation.
The comics themselves address religion only tangentially and deal satirically with completely different subjects. However, a handful of panels were selectively taken out of context as proof of blasphemy (akin to indicting a publisher for having a character in a book use the name of the lord in vain.) We want to present these comics to you in their entirety ("Lebanese Recipes for Revenge" by Lena Merhej & "Ecce Homo" by Valfret) so that you may judge their disruptive natures for yourselves, however we cannot link to them directly for fear of a recurrence of the whole legal debacle. Instead we direct you to our co-publisher’s website grandpapier.com
Despite our lawyers’ airtight legal defense against these claims, the court fell back on the vagaries of an elastic censorship law and a cohort of complacent public servants to criminalize and punish us, in the process committing several legal violations to wit:
1- The three editors currently have "warrants of subjugation" (مذكرات اخضاع) issued against them. These illegal warrants, issued by General Security (despite being annulled by the decision of the council of ministers no. 10 dated 24/7/2014), give it the power to delay official transactions, hold passports, and harass subjects at will. Warrants of subjugation are regularly issued against human rights activists, lawyers and authors/artists as a method of intimidation.
2- The publication law in Lebanon places the legal responsibility for such cases primarily on the authors of the offending story, in this case, Ms. Merhej (also one of the editors of Samandal) and Valfret, and then on the publisher, Samandal Association in this case. Instead, the legal proceedings ignored these laws and targeted three of the four editors personally, incurring triple the charges and triple the fines.
3- The editors were never allowed to testify at the cassation court, even after repeated official requests were made. The same court rejected our request to summon the authors as witnesses.
The assumption that we built a platform such as Samandal to take cheap shots at religious institutions is absurd, and the richness of our publications speaks for themselves. We respect all religions equally and have no interest in targeting any single one for ridicule. However, we have no respect, and in fact much contempt, for those who use religion as a way of exercising their power and tightly policing public discourse.
The assertion that Samandal is insulting the Christian faith is an attempt to pit Samandal against Christianity and religion as a whole, when in fact it is a few individuals in power who are purposefully misreading the work in order to monopolize the conversation and deflect from their own incompetence at state legislation and their own incitement of sectarian strife when it suits them to do so. It is an unfortunate irony that a non-profit publishing platform for comics was prosecuted for “crimes” that continue to be committed daily by various politicians and their respective news outlets. Religion has been wrested from the hands of worshippers and into the chokehold of state institutions, stifling conversation and reducing all debate to a reductive binary of “with us or against us.” We refuse to be a part of that exchange. In fact, Samandal was created precisely to provide an alternative space for a different kind of dialogue, one much richer in language and nuanced in its discussions of the subtleties of the world around us.
Far from being an isolated incident, the Samandal case is simply one iteration within a longstanding practice of arbitrary and unjust state censorship and silencing of artistic production. There is a pressing need to strike a balance between the dangers of censorship on artistic freedom to that of the rights of the plaintiff and other religious sensitivities. This balance becomes even more imperative when the defendant is an artist, while the plaintiff is the public prosecution, or a powerful economic or religious figure, who stands to lose little or nothing in return.
Today Samandal is threatened with imminent collapse because of the capricious and biased application of an antiquated censorship law. The upcoming release of “Geographia” will be the final issue we can publish as Samandal’s finances have been crippled by the damages of the lawsuit forcing our organization to shut down.
However, our love of comics and our ambitions to publish more have not been dampened by this incident and we hope to protest this ruling by continuing to publish, improve and expand Samandal with your continued solidarity. Samandal has survived and thrived because of the involvement and support of its public, and we now call on you to help us relaunch the publication. We hope that a crowdfunding campaign will help us get back on our feet and furthermore publish two new anthologies of Samandal comics. If you would like to help us in our push back, please donate at our online crowdfunding campaign.
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