Protest around the world

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Elena Rostunova /

Beirut is currently witnessing a wave of protests triggered by a rubbish disposal crisis and, lacking a legal framework, the authorities are struggling to cope. The protest — dubbed You Stink by many, including former Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards nominee Lucien Bourjeily — comes as waste has been allowed to build up on the streets of the Lebanese capital. You Stink has very quickly morphed into a more general protest against the way public services in Lebanon are run and corruption levels within a weak government that has been without a president since May 2014.

Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets and social media channels to voice their frustration while the Lebanese authorities have struggled to respond. One short-term solution was to build a wall between the prime minister’s office and the streets below.

Lacking a legal framework for dealing with the protest has left the Lebanese authorities alternating between ignoring the rallies and violently cracking down but neither strategy has made an impact on demonstrations that began in July. Riot police were recently drafted in to clear an occupation at the office of Lebanon’s environment minister Mohammad Al Mashnouq. In that incident, Bourjeily was hospitalised with an injured arm after police cleared the sit-in.

A report by Freedom House in 2013 found that “Freedom of assembly has been generally unrestricted (in Lebanon) in the past, as hundreds of thousands of Lebanese have rallied in favour of or in opposition to the government.” There is no precedent to arrest or disperse large numbers of people protesting against a government or rule of law. Though police have been using force to disperse largely peaceful protests, there is no fear of arrest so the movement continues.

The benign legal framework is coupled with Lebanon’s open media freedom environment. The country is one of the highest-ranked Middle Eastern states for press freedom.  Citizens can also vent their frustrations via the internet and social media with relative ease. Much of the activity that has surrounded the You Stink protests has been spawned online.

The chaos ensuing in Beirut contrasts with the largely peaceful mass demonstrations against the Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak, who has been tainted by accusations of corruption.

The turnout for the protests has been large despite amendments to the country’s colonial-era sedition act made in April 2015 but the threat of arrest was very real as the rally organisers of the protest Bersih 3.0 (Malay for “clean”) recently found out. Websites spreading word of the demonstrations were banned and when groups of protesters attempted to break through the barriers they were fired at with tear gas and beaten and arrested by police, often under sedition laws.

The penalties for the vaguely worded “seditious activities” have recently been increased to 20 years, changes described by the UN and Razak’s opposition as a “black day” for freedom of expression. The sedition law was also used as a legal tool to investigate up to 50 protesters in the Taman Medan region peacefully protesting against the affixation of a cross on a local church’s premises. Initially, the inspector general of police in the region stated that the demonstrators would be cleared of any wrongdoing but this was vetoed by the Home Minister and Razak, who urged police to investigate the protest under sedition and said action could be taken under the law. The case was classified as sedition and serves as an example of a growing climate of fear being emphasised by its use in Malaysia.

Another colonial-era sedition law has been used in India to target groups of protesters on a number of occasions, including 2012 demonstrations against the building of a power station in Tamil Nadu. When told they couldn’t march, thousands of demonstrators stood still to register their concerns about the health impact that the plant would have. A report by local activists after the protest found that at least 3,500 of the participants were being investigated for sedition. South Asia Human Rights Watch denounced the charges and urged the Indian parliament to repeal the law.

In an even stranger case, a charge of sedition was issued in March 2014 against a crowd of Indian students cheering for Pakistan in a one-day cricket match between India and Pakistan. The charges were eventually dropped after outrage from Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah.

Western cities like London may not use sedition as a tool to halt protest but the authorities still find dealing with protest far easier when they are backed by a legal framework. The Public Order Act 1986 outlines the law relating to protest in the UK and makes a firm distinction between static assembly and a moving march. In order to hold a march, protesters are required to submit a permit to a police station at least six days before it takes place and the police can then impose sanctions. In this way, the authorities are able to curtail attempts by demonstrators to protest spontaneously en masse.

Even a static assembly can be sanctioned if the police believe it will cause serious public disorder, serious damage or intimidation. This was the case with the neo-Nazi protest moved from Golders Green to Whitehall in July.

An added piece of legislation, The Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act, came into force in 2011, mainly as a response to the actions of Brian Haw whose tent demonstration outside Whitehall lasted from 2001 until his death in 2011. This new act prohibits protesters from certain activities outside Parliament, preventing protesters from, among other things, operating amplified noise equipment and erecting tents or “sleeping structures”. The wording here is important. In the midst of protests resembling those currently taking place in Beirut, when British protesters “occupied” Whitehall in 2014, the phrase “sleeping structures” was used to cover all sorts of paraphernalia, with the images of protesters being forcibly removed from lying on tarpaulins and sleeping bags being etched into the minds of those observing the British press in the following few weeks. It even prompted a global hashtag, #tarpaulinrevolution.

The new act is coupled with regulations under City of Westminster bylaws stating that protesters must gain written permission before they protest in London’s Parliament Square. The UN General Assembly’s special rapporteur voiced grave concerns about these by-laws and restrictions in a report in 2013.

Protests such as those in London, Malaysia and Tamil Nadu can pictorially resemble those happening in Beirut but are far less of an issue for the authorities due to them being able to rely on a legal framework to disrupt them. In Malaysia, fear of sedition looms large over the heads of even the most peaceful of demonstrators.

For the time being, protest against the interim government in Beirut rumbles on, unabated.

Lebanon: Censorship Bureau approves critical play

Awards Lucien

A play about censorship in Lebanon has unexpectedly been approved by the country’s Censorship Bureau — the body featuring heavily in the work.

La 3younak Sidna is the latest play by renowned Lebanese playwright and director Lucien Bourjeily and free expression organisation MARCH. Last year, his play Bto2ta3 aw ma Bto2ta3 (Will It Pass Or Not?), which deals with the restriction of free expression at the hands of the bureau, was banned. The new play tells this story and includes large parts of the script of the original piece. On Thursday, it was announced that it has been given the green light by authorities.

“After a long battle with the censorship authorities, we are excited to announce that the sequel of the censored play “Bto2ta3 aw ma Bto2ta3”, “La 3younak Sidna” produced by MARCH and directed by Lucien Bourjeily was approved by General Security!” read a Facebook statement from MARCH, which is producing the play.

“Here’s to hoping this is the first of many victories in the anti-censorship struggle in Lebanon, and that the General Security’s Censorship Bureau continues with this open-minded approach to the issue of freedom of expression,” the group added.

The ordeal surrounding Will It Pass Or Not saw Bourjeily nominated for an Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Award in 2014. An extract from the play was published in last year’s winter edition of Index on Censorship magazine.

In May, he again ran into trouble with the General Security Directorate, the agency under which the Censorship Bureau operates. When trying to renew his passport ahead of a trip to London, it was confiscated with the message “You know what you did”. It was returned following huge media attention and an intervention by Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk.

Bourjeily yesterday posted a jubilant statement through his Facebook profile: “This resounding Public Pressure success proves one thing: is that many times in Lebanon we’ve given up on our homeland just moments before we reach a better country… just moments before we succeed in breaking the chains of oppression and corruption… this time we won’t & we shouldn’t!! … THANK YOU… each & everyone of you for standing up against censorship & supporting freedom of speech! One small strategic battle WON: hopefully many others will follow!!”

Nominations for the 2015 Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards are open. Nominate your free expression heroes.

This article was originally posted on 17 October 2014 at

Index Awards 2014: Catching up with arts nominee Lucien Bourjeily

Three months have passed since the 2014 Index Awards and we caught up with arts nominee, Lucien Bourjeily. The Lebanese playwright told Index he is working on the sequel to his play, Will It Pass Or Not?, which was banned because it was about censorship. He hopes the same will not happen to the sequel, but says that even if it does, he is motivated to keep working and to get his message out.

Lebanon: General security return passport to critical writer (29 May 2014)

Index Freedom of Expression Awards: Arts nominee Lucien Bourjeily (13 March 2014)

From the Magazine: Will It Pass or Not? A play by Lucien Bourjeily (12 Feb 2014)

Lebanon: General security return passport to critical writer

(Photo: Lucien Bourjeily/Twitter)

(Photo: Lucien Bourjeily/Twitter)

Lucien Bourjeily is smiling, and with good reason. Only two days earlier, the dark blue Lebanese passport he is holding up had been confiscated by the country’s intelligence agency, with no clear information of when he might get it back. The explanation given? “You know what you did.”

Speaking to Index on Censorship from Beirut, it’s clear that Bourjeily does know. This was not his first run-in with Lebanon’s General Security Directorate. The well-known writer saw his recent play about censorship in Lebanon banned by the agency, which counts media censorship among its many roles. His play was “unrealistic”, the censors told Bourjeily, the irony of the situation lost on them.

The experience earned him a nomination for this year’s Index awards. While he couldn’t attend the awards ceremony in London, he will be travelling to the UK in June to take part in the LIFT Festival with his latest production Vanishing State, which deals with redrawing borders in the Middle East. It was his attempt to renew his passport for this trip — another area under the jurisdiction of the directorate — that led to his latest ordeal.

Bourjeily is convinced the confiscation had been agreed on beforehand. Everyone he dealt with from the general security that day were saying the same thing, despite being in different rooms. “That’s how you know the decision had already been taken.”

A public figure in Lebanon, Bourjeily’s case drew huge media attention. People across the country rallied behind him, and lawyers offered to represent him for free. “I feel very lucky to have so much support, and that my case got so much favour in the public opinion,” he says.

He believes his latest case especially strikes a chord with his countrymen and women. “Every Lebanese loves their passport,” he says. “Freedom of movement for them is even more important than any other thing. Freedom of speech and now freedom of movement? This is too much!”

But he is not the only person to experience this. In 2010, general security confiscated the British passport of Nizar Saghieh, a dual British and Lebanese citizen. Prior to this, Saghieh had represented four Iraqis who were suing the Lebanese state over illegal detention by general security. He only got the passport back following direct intervention by then-Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud. Similarly, current Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk stepped in on Bourjeily’s behalf, personally calling the director of the general security to demand the return of the passport.

He finally got it back on 23 May, with the message that the whole thing had been “a mistake”, and there would be an internal investigation. Bourjeily is not allowed to see the results of the investigation. He asked for justification on behalf of the Lebanese people, wondering whether the agency weren’t at least going to tell the public what they’d told him — that it had been a mistake. Again, he was told no.

Bourjeily says he will add this experience to the sequel of  his banned play. He has also met with Saghieh, who heard about his case in the media, and they “discussed ways to collaborate together”. He has no doubt that this, all things considered, happy ending was down to public pressure. Others might not be as lucky.

“[What] if it [was] not me? If it’s not a person who has 30,000 followers on Facebook? If it was just any regular Joe in Lebanon? What would happen to them if they confiscated their passport?”

This article was posted on May 29 2014 at