Tags Posts tagged with "Rule of Law"

Rule of Law

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Police walk past illegally parked luxury car, despite ticket book in pants pocket.
Police walk past illegally parked luxury car, despite ticket book in pants pocket.

How hard is it to be a Lebanese cop? Can laws be enforced when law enforcement live in fear of losing their jobs? I share conversations I’ve had with Lebanese police in my latest column for Bold Magazine.

 

By Habib Battah


As a pedestrian in Beirut, nothing gets under your skin like a car parked on the sidewalk, forcing you to walk into the street to get around it. So recently, when a brand new Maserati was blocking the sidewalk on Bliss Street, I was happy to see two police officers approaching with a thick book of parking tickets protruding from one’s side pocket. But the police simply walked around the car and continued on their way. I caught up with them and asked why they had not done anything. At first they played dumb. “Which car, where?”

After much cajoling they finally smiled: “Look this is Lebanon. You need to change the top first,” one said, in what seemed to be a reference to parliament. But what did that have to do with an everyday street violation? You have the ticket book, why not just enforce the law, I pleaded. The officers chuckled. “Do you know what they will do to us if we enforce the law? What if the guy is connected? Who knows what will happen to you. Maybe they will transfer you to Saida or Tripoli, far from your friends and family.”

Sadly, it is a response I have heard many times before from many a policeman on Lebanon’s streets. I’ll never forget the time I watched an officer get verbally insulted in downtown Beirut at a time when the city streets were cordoned off during the 2007 sit-in by opposition campers. The officer was monitoring one of the city’s entrances and asked a man to provide ID – a routine request at the time. The man angrily refused, threatening the officer. “Do you know who I am! I am military intelligence. Don’t you ever question me again!”

I watched in disbelief a few meters away as the cop backed off and the plainclothes man walked through, cursing him as he went. What if the man wasn’t who he said he was; and even then, how dare he treat another officer that way. “What can I do,” the cop told me sheepishly. “What if he was someone important? Why do I want to mess with that? Maybe he will send me away.”

More recently on a busy intersection in Hamra, I witnessed an officer directing traffic as two young teenage boys careened around the corner in front of him in a big black SUV blaring a police-style siren to push through traffic. He barely flinched as this duo committed what would seem the most egregious of all offenses: impersonating law enforcement itself. When I asked him, the cop on duty said: “Are you crazy? I can’t touch them. Every car that starts with the number 600 belongs to Berri” – a reference to the current speaker of parliament.

If fear of punishment from senior officials discourages police from enforcing the law, then the surprise dismissal of Captain Michel Moutran last May seems to lend credibility to that argument. Fresh from the US with a master’s degree in highway traffic safety, Moutran was appointed to head the Interior Ministry’s Traffic Management Center (TMC). He decided to set up a Twitter account late last year to communicate road conditions to citizens by publishing screenshots from the center, which has cameras set up across the city.

“I thought we should share with the public what we know, otherwise there is no point to what we were doing,” he said in reference to the TMC, which was set up three years ago.

The account garnered over 40,000 followers in six months and inspired similar moves by traffic management centers in France and Italy, Moutran says proudly. And it wasn’t long before some of those followers began tweeting traffic updates of their own, many of them documenting violations they had photographed on their cell phones. In a surprising move, TMC began retweeting those pictures, including images of police officers parking their cars on the sidewalk, or driving motorcycles without helmets among other offences. Moutran says 40 officers were issued violations, in addition to many other vehicles whose plate numbers were identified in tweets documenting abuse.

But last month Moutran announced on Twitter that he would no longer be running the TMC account, which he described as his “baby” without giving a reason. An online uproar ensued with many accusing the ministry of firing him for doing his job. Soon, the Arabic hashtag “#WeWantCapt.MoutranBackBecause” began trending nationally in Lebanon.

During a phone interview, Moutran offered no comment when asked if he had gone too far or upset senior officers, saying only: “We are not a perfect country, we are not a perfect institution, we have a long journey to walk. We have to be pragmatic, we are not in an ideal state.” He said he was not fired but “transferred” to a new officer training position, while maintaining a role of public relations manager at TMC.

Moutran says officer fears of being punished for doing their jobs are misplaced, “exaggerated” or may be an “excuse” to avoid tough jobs. But he also admits that the force is so over stretched it can only focus on traffic directing rather than enforcement of laws, with many intersections receiving up to 8,000 vehicles per hour, while they were designed to accommodate a third of that number. He says the number of cars, at about 1.5 million, needs to be drastically reduced through public transport solutions and that the current number of traffic police – at around 600-700 – needs to be increased by at least 30 percent. Automated technologies such as camera ticketing need to be boosted although 800 tickets are issued per day, he says. But at least half are not delivered due to poor addressing – yet another enforcement challenge.

There is also a problem of jurisdiction with Internal Security Forces handling most violations while municipality police often neglect their duties to issue street tickets, Moutran says, adding that more training is needed all around. Some of that training has begun according to press releases and a new billboard campaign around Beirut, which shows officers holding up babies to celebrate 153rd anniversary of the ISF.

Of course this will do little to convince those who have accused the police of human rights violations, torture and deplorable prison conditions. At a recent university job fair, the police handed out new brochures to students, offering a kinder face to the force, touting new training and citizen engagement programs. When asked about torture and abusive practices, one of the officers replied: “No, no, that was the past, those days are over now.”

But perhaps the Lebanese police face problems that the training of foot soldiers cannot resolve. Perhaps a training of higher level commanders and members of parliament and their families is also in order: a training on the rule of law from the highest levels of power to many well-connected or even average citizens whose often obnoxious defiance does not make a thankless officer’s job any easier.

This column was first published in the July-August issue of Bold Magazine.

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… for the “Hawker” private security guard staring and squinting at me while taking this picture (because I haven’t shaved?) comes rushing toward me (bottom left)–tells me photos are illegal in front of the “mahal” /store (Starbucks) he is protecting.

“Do you want to call the police,” I ask, calmly reminding him he is not law enforcement.

“I don’t need to call the police,” he replies. “I will take the law into my own hands.”

Now there’s a nice story for the Starbucks “community engagement” wall. Following today’s “terror raid” at a Hamra hotel, maybe Hawker will start busting jihadists drinking Frappuccinos.

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The Lebanese police are celebrating their 153rd anniversary. At a commemoration event, the head of the force pledged officers would continue to serve all citizens and be ‘above’ sectarian and political divides.

But will they also be above the law? These banners thanking the police for their “service and sacrifice” were posted on the coastal highway, blocking major traffic signs. The banners are sponsored by local municipalities as indicated in small print below.

Yes being a police officer in Lebanon is not easy and many probably do work tirelessly, sweating profusely at intersections and enduring insults of thuggish citizens while trying to direct traffic. At the same time, there are also many accounts of torture and abuse. And many instances of flouting laws, such as blaring sirens for no reason but to get through traffic. The idea that municipalities can also flout the law to curry favor with the force (or other political parties) is a metaphor for the everyday lawlessness police so often either willingly tolerate or are too intimidated to crack down upon.

Screen Shot of Nouweb site
One of the best ways to hold government accountable is to get in touch with your representatives and let them know how you feel. Let them know what concerns you. Most of all, let them know you are listening and watching what they are doing. 
Now thanks to a great new tool developed by local groups SMEX and Lamba Labs, you can actually contact your members of Parliament.  
As I reported last year most MPs don’t even have email–which goes a long way toward explaining why our internet is among the world’s slowest. But fortunately most if not all of them still have phone numbers, office numbers and secretaries and they are now available on Nouweb
This is a really great tool, which could help spark something we desperately lack in Lebanon and much of the world: representative government. Remember, no matter where you live in the world, government will rarely work for you unless you let them know you are listening. As my mom always says, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. 
So if you see something wrong, if the police are not enforcing laws–if people are dumping garbage in the valley, if you want 24 hour electricity, if you want traffic laws, if you are sick of being almost run over by reckless drivers, call your MP. Be civil. Be polite. Be clear and concise. If they don’t answer, call again, leave a message. Make your voice heard, because no one is going to make it heard for you. No one is going to give you rights unless you demand them. And everyone has a right to speak to their MPs. Don’t forget, we are paying their salaries!
Finally if the good folks that developed Nouweb can make this list possible, than it is also definitely possible that you can do something with it!

For non-Arabic speakers the site’s name is a clever play on words combining Nuweb– the Arabic term for parliamentarians–and web)  

Ah the post card image of Raouche. Now imagine it surrounded by a giant fenced off marina, full of concrete structures and gas guzzling yachts.

Well that very well may happen if people continue to ignore the major development now underway there, despite its very shaky legal status. Some activists showed up last week, but not nearly enough to make a statement loud enough to capture the attention of the public and the parliament.

After the rally, I decided to check the area out. I never knew there were so many natural pools:

And interesting rock formations:

Then there is a series of caves:

We took a boat ride to explore further:

In this cave, the fisherman said they have seen a family of seals, who apparently live in one of the deep passageways:

 I had heard about the seals a few weeks ago from an environmentalist. It reminded me of this guy who was spotted in Tyre last year:

We headed out of the cave:

And then through the natural tunnel in the main Raouche rocks:

Finally we entered into a third cave. Our guide said it stretches 100 meters deep:

We got back to the loading area, where the boats are hoisted up with makeshift cranes:

The cranes appear to be made out of old electricity poles:

Fastened together with some pretty ancient looking engines and metal work:

And operated with stacks of old oil drums:

These guys should win the DIY award of the year or be featured in a Discovery Channel show or something.

We wandered around and found other natural bays and inlets:

The guys in the photo explained how they have been coming here for years. “It’s the best place to swim in Beirut,” one said. “You can easily reach Dalieh from any part of the city, Ras Beirut or Dahieyh. Who can afford those beach resorts? You have to pay entrance fees, you can’t bring your own food, so you have to spend $50 to have a good time.”

And unlike the fancy resorts, the small coffee shops around this natural harbor were recently bulldozed for being “illegal”

It’s always interesting how the law is applied to the poor, while multi-million dollar resorts continue to operate across the coast nationwide with no permits.

The men explained that developers are trying to evict the fishermen who use another nearby harbor:

The work has already begun. Giant concrete blocks have been brought to the center of the Dalieh peninsula:

Providing an odd backdrop for the horse and camel rides:

It’s an eerie feeling to walk through them:

Some people are even using the barricades for shade to picnic:

After all that’s what Dalieh has always been. A place for families to spend time

Pitch a tent

Put some chicken on the barbecue:

Enjoy the views, take pictures:

Aromatic wild Zaatar grows here:

But now those views will be obstructed:

Not just for those on the coast, but also those on the corniche, which will be blocked with construction walls, as you can see by the poles going up on the left:

This means a huge chunk of the seafront will soon be blocked from public view, including those postcard Raouche Rocks:

And the entire Dalieh area–caves, pools and all–may be soon inaccessible to the public, if not concreted over.

There remains only one small entrance left to Dalieh, a hole in the fence:

Hundreds flow through this entrance on the weekends to get to the grounds below. But some say they have had to fight to keep it open:

One of the fishermen pointed to two holes in the sidewalk and said they were caused by gunshots. Some told me the police had tried to enforce the closure.

One said: “This door is our livelihood,” in reference to the fishing, boat tours and horse rides.

So what can you do to keep Daliah open and safe from bulldozers? The only way authorities will recognize this space and resistance to developers claims, is if people actually use it.

This weekend activists say they have arranged activities for all ages including kites, games, an outdoor market.

You can join them at 3PM on Sunday and spread the word by liking the Facebook event page as well as the group page Civil Campaign to Protect Dalieh

To read more about the controversial changes in property laws that have allowed this to happen, see this previous post for background and a video presentation delivered by researchers last week at AUB.

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Watch the video below as this bus driver barely looks at the highway while texting for almost 20 seconds: 

The video was shot by my friend, photographer George Haddad when catching a bus in the Nahr El Mawt area. The bus seems to be marked “15” on the windshield. Hopefully the driver can be located, as was the case recently in the US when a school bus driver was caught on camera by a student.

I’m also posting this because texting has become endemic on Lebanese highways. Sometimes it feels like every other driver is texting or scrolling when you look around in traffic.

The issue was raised last year when pop star Haifa Wehbe was cast as a spokesmodel for the much-hyped “Don’t text and drive campaign” organized with the help of a former minister. But with zero law enforcement proposals, the campaign seems to have amounted to little more than a publicity stunt.

So what is stopping the police from pulling over and fining such drivers?

I’ve written about bus safety in the past–also at issue are the open doors on buses even when driving at highway speeds. I wonder what our transport minister makes of all this. Does he have an opinion?

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Note: This cell phone video does no justice to George’s stellar photography work. See the link above and visit his Facebook page for great images. 


This column was first published in the April issue of Bold Magazine

A Thirst For Silence


By Habib Battah 

Conflict in Lebanon is often analyzed through the lens of simplistic dichotomies: pro-Syria and anti-Syria; pro Western and anti-Western, pro Hezbollah or anti-Hezbollah. But more often than not, Lebanon’s feuding politicians – many of them former warlords – have a lot in common and an increasingly common enemy: criticism and critical thought. 

Today politicians on both sides of the political divide are suing journalists and news publications. From the pro-Western March 14 party, Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi is taking Al Akhbar newspaper to court over an editorial that mocked Lebanon’s president and asked him to leave office. Following the president’s criticism of Hezbollah military policies, the paper’s editor accused the president of “moral treason” and said his portrait hung in public offices was “an insult to all the Lebanese…” In defense of the lawsuit, Minister Rifi tweeted that the “time for insulting and debauchery has come to an end” and he pledged to “build a state where everyone is under the law.” 

But the idea that a singular minister will decide on what amounts to jail-able “debauchery” runs contrary to the very notion of equality under the rule of law. And if all Lebanese citizens are to be treated equally, why then is the president exempt from criticism according to the archaic Lebanese penal code? In fact it is publications loyal to Minister Rifi’s political associates that have regularly chastised Hezbollah with similar language. One broadcaster even called for the overthrow of the prime minister, leading a crowd of protesters toward his offices during a 2012 protest, urging them to take the building by force in clashes that injured several police officers. But no case was brought against him by the state. Where was the minister of justice then? 

On the other end of the spectrum, the Hezbollah-affiliated minister of energy is now suing Executive magazine for a story it ran with quotes from the minister himself. Executive had asked Minister Gebran Bassil about $33 million of revenues generated from the sale of seismic data revealing Lebanon’s potential offshore oil reserves. Executive dutifully printed Mr. Bassil’s reported answer: “You are asking questions I am not really aware of, about details that are not really important.” It is not clear on what basis Bassil can sue the magazine for using such a quote, but he has not denied saying it in a lengthy response issued to Executive following the initial article’s publication. In fact, in all 10 paragraphs of the rebuttal issued by the Energy ministry – and re-printed by Executive – the figure of $33 million does not appear once, save for a vaguely worded sentence that states Petroleum Administration budget funds “shall be deposited in an account at the Central Bank.” But there are no details as to exactly how much or when the amount will be deposited. 

Executive had also asked Minister Bassil about the yet-to-be published environmental impact assessment of pumping oil off the Lebanese coast, but that document was also not produced, according to the magazine. 

So does a minister have a right to sue a news organization for asking questions? Do the Lebanese people not have a right to know both specific details about their natural resources, the environmental impact of drilling and the minister’s specific answers when asked about those issues? Or is it being suggested that the media should not only self censor itself but also self censor the comments that have come out of politicians’ own mouths? 

Of course the threats faced by Lebanese media have not been restricted to legal action, but also entail physical violence. When a crew from Al Jadeed TV attempted to investigate allegations of millions of dollars in corruption at the Lebanese Customs administration late last year, they were reportedly denied an interview and thus resorted to asking for one over a megaphone outside his office. It wasn’t long before a crowd of armed security agents stormed the crew, breaking the megaphone and punching and kicking them in broad daylight, with all of the action caught on camera. The reporters were subsequently arrested but released hours later after a huge crowd had gathered outside the justice palace demanding their release. 

Attacks on those who challenge authority are not limited to the mainstream press. Several bloggers have been questioned over recent weeks and months by the state’s “cyber crimes” unit. Among the offenders are blog posts that have raised questions about unfair treatment of workers at a major supermarket chain and others that have covered questionable business practices at a pyramid investment scheme and an award show that charges participants exorbitant fees for prize collection. One popular twitter user was recently sentenced to two months in prison for insulting the president, in a ruling akin to punishments in autocratic Arab monarchies that have been uncommon in Lebanon where speech is relatively less regulated. 

Fortunately there is a silver lining to all this. As worrying as attacks on free expression have been, equally significant is the defiant reaction from those accused. By and large, bloggers have publicized their experiences in detail, stood by their posts and drawn hordes of supporters even among mainstream media outlets. National broadcaster LBC for example aired a tongue-in cheek-interview last month with one of the interrogated bloggers, introducing him nonchalantly as a “digital criminal.” The smiling host then preemptively and politely interrupts the blogger each time he begins answering a question. First she asks he not speak about the president, then the courts, then the customs authorities, then corruption, then Lebanese politics and political parties in general and of course religion. “Is there anything left to talk about,” he asks sheepishly. The host smiles and abruptly ends the show, adding: “This has been a very beneficial interview.” 

Meanwhile the beaten Al Jadeed TV crew has pressed on with its quest for answers from customs authorities and repeatedly played the video of agents assaulting its journalists, slowing down each frame and naming and shaming the officers involved. Printed press have also stood their ground, keeping the questionable articles available online. Al Akhbar has gone as far as laughing in the face of the state, challenging it to a battle in the courts and printing similarly-toned subsequent editorials, one in which the paper’s editor dares the state to sue, ending with “take your best shot.” Executive magazine, on the other hand has welcomed a trial as yet another chance to question the energy minister’s record and thanking him for it: “You have given us the opportunity to interrogate you on all your practices over the past five years in power. We will see you in court,” the magazine’s editor-in-chief recently wrote. 

Considering the amount of angst they have generated, one wonders if Lebanon’s politicians will backtrack on their lawsuits. The attention they have created has only cast new light on unanswered questions and potential abuses of power. It has also exponentially popularized the blog posts, tweets and news articles that have so offended them. But this could be just the tip of the iceberg. Lebanon’s government institutions are notoriously opaque as are the business holdings of individual politicians, many of whom are millionaires and billionaires. This is in addition to the government salaries and benefits they enjoy, which are over ten times average wages. Plus parliament only met twice in 2013, once to extend its mandate by delaying elections by over a year, a move seen as unconstitutional by many legal analysts. 

Yet even if the court cases do not see the light, that politicians are now pursuing such trivial issues may reveal a new power landscape where even in militia-ruled Lebanon, the richest and most powerful are increasingly on the defensive, challenged not just by the power of the mainstream press, but even by a short blog post or a 140-character tweet.

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Watch the LBC clip mocking the press crackdown:





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In journalism school, there are debates about what a reporter can ethically accept from a source. Gifts and even lunch are usually strictly forbidden, but there are arguments about whether coffee or biscuits can be justified.
But what if your host bakes you a cake? 
That’s exactly what happened on the latest episode of the leading LBC interview show, Kalam Ennas (Word of the People). The host Marcel Ghanem (top left) was interviewing Lebanon’s leading priest cardinal Beshara Rai (right) who baked a little something for the cast and production crew:
Not only was it a cake, but a cake with LBC’s name on it:

The pictures above were tweeted by the show to get viewers tuned in ahead of the broadcast. But what could viewers really expect from such an interview?
Why interview the top priest anyway? Is he going to provide answers to the pressing problems the Lebanese people face? The broken roads, the lawlessness on the highways where hundreds are killed every year by reckless accidents? The lack of jobs, electricity, water or affordable telephone bills or internet, to name a few?
I wonder sometimes why the show is called “Word of the People” when almost every one of its guests is an elite political operative, feudal landholder, millionaire businessman or all three in one– which is often the case.
Why is it that such a small group of often meritless individuals or unelected religious leaders have so much power over Lebanese politics? I would venture that a big part of their power/relevance comes from the media, i.e. if these people weren’t on TV every day, would we even care what they had to say? Would they be so ‘important’?
Here is how Kalam Ennas promoted the interview with Rai, on it’s Twitter page: 

One of the main reasons for this show was the upcoming presidential election and since “tradition” says the president should be Christian, the church is thought to have an “important” role in determining who this man (it’s never a woman) will be.
But why is that? Why must Lebanon’s president be Christian? Article 12 in the Lebanese constitution says: 

“Every Lebanese has the right to hold public office, no preference being made except on merit and competence…” 

This question was put to the show by my colleague, journalist Leila Hatoum:

@habib_b @hanibathish @Marcel_Ghanem بحسب الدستور اي شخص بغض النظر عن دينه او طائفته يمكن ان يكون رئيسا.التقليد العرف هو السبب بتدين المناصب
— Leila Hatoum (@Leila1H) March 25, 2014

And by my colleague, journalist Hani Bathish:

@habib_b ask why a President has to be Maronite, and why he has to be ‘approved’ by his sect rather than by all the Lebanese people
— Hani Bathish (@hanibathish) March 25, 2014

But neither received a response as far as I can tell. And yet the interview with Rai went on for a whopping two hours! You can watch it here, if you have that much time to spare!

I’m not sure how that time was filled, since the only headline to come out of the interview in The Daily Star was: “Rai Parliament must get going with Presidential vote

Breaking news, huh? Seriously, were there any tough questions about Lebanon’s ridiculously inefficient, feudalistic and corrupt political system asked during this interview?  Unless the marathon broadcast was not meant to inform, just to propagate that autocratic good old boys club with smiles and… cakes?

Again I really don’t have two hours to spare, so if someone does or has seen it, please let me know if I missed something here.


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Dubai’s Creative Chill


This column first appeared in the March issue of Bold Magazine

THE ARRESTS OF SHEZANNE CASSIM AND DOZENS OF OTHERS OVER INNOCUOUS SOCIAL MEDIA INTERACTIONS – SOME SATIRICAL, SOME EXPLICITLY CRITICAL – CREATE A CHILLING EFFECT ACROSS DUBAI’S CREATIVE INDUSTRIES, EVEN AS THE EMIRATE TRIES TO SELL ITSELF AS A CENTER FOR THE ARTS. SUCH INTOLERANCE THREATENS THE CITY-STATE’S LONG-TERM STABILITY 

By Habib Battah

S

hezanne Cassim is a name the rulers of Dubai would probably like to forget. For months, the 29-year-old American was held in a remote maximum security prison, one reserved for threats to national security. CNN correspondent Sarah Sidner drove past the desert facility, after government officials had refused to talk to her. Local and regional media largely ignored the case, so it was surprising that CNN Abu Dhabi, which frequently offers complimentary coverage of the monarchy, would cover the story. In fact, the only Emirati that spoke to the network went to jail shortly after Sidner’s piece was aired. 

Even Cassim, a Sri-Lankan American who grew up in Dubai and worked as a consultant for PriceWaterhouseCoopers, was not aware of the charges against him until five months after he was incarcerated by UAE police. Finally, after nearly nine months in jail, he was convicted earlier this year for “defaming the UAE.” The offense was a 20-minute YouTube spoof film he had made that playfully mocked Emirati street fighting culture. In one skit, locals use their agala, the black rope that fastens a headdress in its place, as a weapon. (This was actually not far from the truth as last year an Emirati was filmed beating a migrant worker mercilessly with his agala on the side of the highway. The man who shot the humiliating episode on his phone and uploaded to YouTube was also jailed.) 

But Cassim was more fortunate than the scores of human rights activists languishing in UAE prisons over their social media interactions. His family in the US mounted a social media campaign, with hashtag #FreeShez, and enlisted the help of US lawmakers, attorneys and government officials. Major Hollywood actors also came to Cassim’s defense, including Will Ferrell, who created a video demanding his release with the cast of US television show “Funny or Die.” Sure enough, two weeks later, and despite his recent conviction, Cassim was released for time already served. Amusingly the UAE judge ordered that copies of the film be “confiscated,” perhaps not realizing the existence of YouTube or that trial publicity helped garner the spoof film over half a million views. 

In an interview with the BBC, UAE prime minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum called the incident a “mistake,” adding: “We are not perfect and we try to change it… we are doing our best.” But Maktoum stopped short of apologizing for taking away nine months of Cassim’s life or for jailing or sentencing seven others that worked on the film, including Europeans and North Americans who were convicted in absentia. Little is also known about the fate of Emirati activist Obaid Al-Zaabi, who appeared in the CNN report, or the 22-year-old unnamed Indian who shot the cell phone video that may have helped inspire Cassim’s spoof. 

Equally disturbing about the affair is the chilling effects it will have on creativity in the UAE, which is trying to sell itself as a center for the arts with its star-studded film festivals, production cities and bids to open branches of New York University and the Louvre museum. 

Writing in The Guardian after his release, Cassim questioned why Dubai authorities had not sued the producers of major Hollywood movies such as George Clooney’s “Syriana” or Tom Cruise’s “Mission Impossible,” which were shot in Dubai (presumably with lots of local help) and yet portrayed Gulf states as a “politically corrupt breeding ground for Islamic terrorism.” 

“The authorities supported and feted those movies, even though they portray the country as a paradise for international criminals, but I was imprisoned, deported and banned from returning to the UAE for a novice comedy-sketch…” Cassim wrote. 

On Facebook, I asked several Lebanese friends and colleagues working in Dubai about the case while Cassim was still in prison and astonishingly, many of them defended the government ruling. 

One friend, a creative writer for a major ad agency, put it bluntly: “Most people (expats and locals) living here don’t need to question the royal families … because at the end of the day, they are provided with a good lifestyle.” 

Another colleague, a marketing manager for large brands, suggested a more troubling view: 

“I do support such rulings… No one forced people to come to the UAE. They want to come, let them respect the laws of the country…. A nation is protected when it has clear laws, regardless of what they are.” He added: “Those living abroad prefer to focus on more important things relating to their work and lives than spend it criticizing a nation that is putting food on their table every single day…” 

But how could punitive limits on creative expression be divorced from “daily lives,” particularly when you work in a creative industry? Perhaps my friends fear they will wind up like over 100 Emirati human rights lawyers and activists that have been jailed, many for the interactions on social media, according to the Emirates Center for Human Rights. But have they even heard of those prisoners? How many local or Arab media outlets have publicized their cases? 

The UAE is not alone. The region’s prisons are full of filmmakers, activists bloggers and journalists. In Egypt for example, three Al Jazeera journalists have been in jail since last year simply because their coverage was seen as sympathetic to the opposition. The trial has probably received more attention from the foreign press than regional outlets, which it may affect most. And before we rush to label this as an “Arab phenomenon,” let’s not forget that a US congressman threatened to throw a reporter off the balcony and cut him “in half,” in a conversation that was caught on tape earlier this year. Astonishingly, the reporter accepted the politician’s apology. Was he worried about rocking the boat? And what if that conversation was not caught on tape? How many threats or intimidation tactics do journalists face on a daily basis that are not accidentally recorded? How often do they self-censor themselves, preemptively? 

Our conditioned acceptance of intimidation is the lasting consequence of harassment. Cassim may be free now but how many will dare satire Dubai in the future? Yes there may be plenty of jobs today, but what about when the oil wealth runs dry? How will the UAE build a media industry to compete with global players if it cannot laugh at itself or produce humor, the basis of the entertainment industry? 

Dubai has recently won hosting rights to the Expo 2020 international exhibition. Its leaders speak constantly about aspirations to create a city of the future, launching a dizzying array of “world-class” initiatives in education, health care, green energy, architecture, finance, even space exploration. But what about when those leaders are gone? What future is there without public participation, through public institutions? And what institutions can be built without accountability or transparency? As it stands today, will anyone dare question how the courts work or how public money is spent? 

The chilling effect, the willingness to stay silent without being asked, is a serious long-term danger, not just for business. Have a look around the region and it’s painfully clear that bottling up dissent does not bode well for long-term stability, which is what is needed to put food on the table.

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Watch the video that landed Cassim in jail here: 

 

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Lebanese skier posed nude on the public slopes for photographer Prince Hubertus.

By now everyone has heard of Jackie Chamoun–not because she is the lone woman representing Lebanon at the Olympics in Sochi, but because of her boobs. Lebanon’s minister of sports says she violated the law by posing nude at a public ski resort and he has vowed to open an investigation.

I first discussed the story yesterday in the beat-up cab of a flat bed truck as my car was being towed. “People don’t have money to eat and they are talking about this lady,” said the driver, a burly man in his 40s with a scruffy beard. “There are people who can’t buy a sandwich,” he added, shaking his head.

It’s hard to disagree. Not only is the rampant poverty in Lebanon often overlooked but also the culprits behind rampant suicide bombings and assassinations have largely escaped with impunity due to the poor capacity of investigations into those crimes. Amid such disarray, as well as extreme levels of corruption among Lebanese ministers and the parliament as a whole, are Jackie’s breasts a priority? Clearly not.

But also perplexing is the movement to support Jackie, which has literally sprung up overnight. Several men and few women have posed partially nude pictures using the hashtag #stirpforjackie. The hashtag was trending last night, an online petition by an international organization was created and a Facebook group was opened by local photographers who have volunteered to shoot nudes (the page already has over 13,000 likes). This follows an avalanche of international media coverage and dozens of pictures posted on Instagram and Twitter. Many were thin, athletic people happy to show off their bodies. Here are some samples from a storify created by Lebanese Voices:

Like the calendar Jackie was posing for, few of the models/supporters were hairy, unsightlty or overweight.

So what about that calendar? According to Middle East Institute’s blog, Jackie and another Lebanese skier “posed in a calendar for photographer/Olympic skier Hubertus von Hohenlohe, a German prince who is representing Mexico in Sochi (I’m not making this up).” When interviewed by NBC, Jackie seemed somewhat uncomfortable with the stunt:

Of course it was a strange feeling to be on the slopes of Lebanon and produce this calendar, but it was great to be with Hubertus and his crew. It was a great experience and a lot of fun.

When you say it was weird, what do you mean?


First because it was… I did photos before for a Lebanese magazine and advertisements but not these kind of photos. The other weird thing was that I knew everybody at the ski resort. I knew all the skiers who were passing. I could see other skiers. I could see the parents of other skiers. I could see my coaches, everyone. When you get there, you are like, ‘No, what am I doing? Maybe I shouldn’t do this.’ But then you go with it and have fun.

Was it a positive experience?

Uhh, yes.

Why the hesitation?


(laughs) It was positive for me. I don’t regret it at all. When I started my job, for example, people when they search for me on the web sometimes they can see these pictures directly so you think maybe it’s not the best thing, not the best image you can give someone of you. But, I don’t really care, though. I really enjoyed it and I don’t regret it. I like these photos. I have no problem with it.



I wonder though, is being naked in the snow really fun? Is having friends and their parents see you naked in a public place, fun?

And if not for entertainment, why did Jackie do it? Was it for the money? Was it for the fame and publicity that the prince could help bestow? If so, is it not sad that women so often need to show off their bodies to shed light on their careers?

Have a look at how women are presented in the media, particularly the local media. Many of the “successful” women appearing on Lebanese television have been dressed down to show generous amounts of cleavage. Local television stations like MTV and LBC are selling women’s bodies with abandon. And taking a page from misogynist US corporations, women’s bodies are even dismembered in ads run by local department store Aishti.

LBC show Splash

Splash

MTV’s Murex awards coverage

Aishti billboard

Now should we celebrate Jackie and Prince Hubertus’s contribution to all this objectification? To those many who have rushed to Jackie’s defense, do they also celebrate her athleticism or just her nudity? Do they know her statistics, do they know the scandals she has faced in the corrupt bureaucracy of Lebanese sports? None of this appeared in a small piece celebrating Chamoun today in leading online outlet NowLebanon with the headline: “Jackie is hot and she knows it.”

Free expression has often been the crusading talking point of activists. But is nudity free expression? Most countries ban it in public spaces and let’s not forget these photos were shot at a public ski slope.
There is a reason why nudity is illegal. Whether right or wrong, most citizens probably don’t engage or support it in public.

So do those taking up her cause also value the free expression of others–perhaps most Lebanese–who believe nudity does not need to be public? It seems at least Jackie, who has since apologized for the photos, realizes her actions are not exactly reflective of mainstream behavior and opinion.

Here’s another excerpt from her NBC interview:

Was it difficult to do in a country like Lebanon which is more conservative than a lot of other countries in the world?

Yes. If we were somewhere else in Lebanon, in a public place, maybe they would have shooted us. But we were on the slope in Faraya and it is an open space. The people who go there are people from Beirut who are open-minded, more international in their thinking, and also the jet-set of Lebanon so it wasn’t a problem there. It’s really open there, like in Europe. In other places we could have been in really big trouble.


How many of Jackie’s supporters belong to this elite group of Lebanese jet setters, isolated from the general public? Do any of those shooting nude selfies live in Lebanon’s poor neighborhoods? Do their parents have access to generators or do they face days long power and water outages? Do they have plenty of food to eat or do they barely get by, like Lebanon’s one million poor? Do they face the daily violence of suicide bombing in south Beirut or the mortar shells, rockets and bombs falling on poor and rural parts of the South Lebanon, the Bekaa and Tripoli?

It’s important to call out the hypocrisy of ministers, particularly since there are many other far more important athletic scandals that Mr. Karami could be investigating as shown in this report by Executive Magazine.

At the same time, when representing a nation, it’s also important to respect the multitude of views back home–in this case the majority of the population–who are not so well off and have other things to worry about. The greatest irony of all is that were it not for Minister Karami’s offensive investigation or Jackie’s self-objectification, many of those supporting her today probably would have never known she or the Lebanese Olympic team even existed at all.