Earlier this year, three editors/artists for the independent Lebanese magazine Samandal were found guilty of belittling Christianity, “inciting sectarian strife,” and propagating “defamation and slander” leading to a total of $60,000 in fines. In a recent interview with The Comics Journal, four of the publication’s editors (three of whom have been directly implicated in the above charges), Omar Khouri, Lena Merhej, Hatem Imam, and Fadi Baki (a.k.a. fdz), spoke about the conviction and what it means not only for Samandal but also for the future of free press in Lebanon.
From its humble beginnings in 2006 as a self-published comics periodical that would help grow the burgeoning Lebanese indie comics scene to what its current incarnation as a global collaborative effort in one tri-lingual publication, Samandal has built itself into one of premier indie comics magazines in the Middle East. Along with the attention that the magazine has garnered from its growing fan base, it has also attracted the negative attention of the Lebanese government.
“Defamation and slander have become the standard accusation with the recent rise of legislation in Lebanon, where the accusing party enjoys some kind of political power and uses the legal system to exercise it,” says fdz to TJC. For Samandal’s editors, this exercise of power came in the form of fines that fdz interprets as a tactic to financially cripple the magazine, which takes no profit from its sales. Khouri also speculates that the reason that they were only fined, as opposed to facing to severe jail sentences similar to those imposed on artists Atena Farghadani in Iran or Musa Kart in Turkey, is because the Lebanese government was interested in “taking the fastest and easiest way to appease the complaining ‘religious personalities.’”
Although the legal actions taken against Samandal’s editors resulted in a hefty fine, Khouri feels that their case is indicative of a larger issue plaguing free press in Lebanon, telling TCJ:
I’d say that censorship is a good gauge of the political situation in the country. While Lebanon has a reputation of free press, this reputation is mostly earned in comparison to the awful state of censorship in neighboring countries in the region. That said, once you look at Lebanon’s “free press” you quickly realize that every outlet has a margin of “freedom of expression” conversely related to the power of the political party backing it.
“It is important to note that Samandal’s case is not unique,” fdz further clarifies. “Censorship has always been something that Lebanese artists of various professions have had to deal with and General Security is notorious for chopping up films, denying exhibition permissions, banning books, music and acting as a sort of ‘moral arbitrator’ on cultural production.”
Khouri and fdz further elaborate that “free press” in Lebanon is very much contingent upon what political parties you are being backed by. If you don’t have a political affiliation, as is the case with Samandal, you become the target of the government and vulnerable to their censorship tactics.
Despite (and perhaps in spite of) the challenges the publication faces, the editors at Samandal have learned to navigate the censorious waters. Along with initiating an Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign to overcome the financial hardship imposed by the government and to fund the production of two annual anthologies, they have also adapted their fundraising methods to support and foster new creative talent. Out of the 5-year court battle, the editors see Samandal as an opportunity to propagate and promote freedom of press, even if the Lebanese government attempts to stifle them.
“After paying those fines, Samandal is broke,” notes fdz bluntly, adding:
We were faced with the choice of either shuttering the publication or reaching out to whatever fans we had out there for support. We don’t want to stop putting out comics, especially after such wanton and arbitrary persecution. We wanted to put out MORE comics if only to spite them. That’s where the idea came from. Let’s not just help Samandal out from being broke — let’s fund the next two issues. Let their censorship be the reason to put out more work.
Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!