“Censorship” comes from the Latin word censor. In the 5th c. C.E. Rome, the censor had two duties: to count the citizens (census) and to supervise their morals. In Greek communities, the ideal of good governance included shaping the character of the people. Two of the most famous cases of censorship in ancient times are that of Socrates, sentenced to drink poison for his corruption of youth and his acknowledgement of unorthodox divinities, and the female mathematician and philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria, whom, according to those who stripped her flesh from her bones and scattered her body parts through the streets, had heretical teachings and ‘was a woman who didn’t know her place’. During the Middle Ages in Europe, witch-hunts resulted in the trial, torture, and execution of tens of thousands of victims, about three-quarters of whom were women living outside the parameters of the patriarchal family, perceived as embodiments of inexhaustible negativity.
Modern-day Socrates, Hypatia and witches’ cases fill the drawers of censorship bureaus, court houses, prisons and cemeteries in the Arab world: journalists, bloggers, musicians, university professors, and other public figures. The fall of many dictatorial regimes after what was labeled ‘Arab Spring’ hasn’t brought durable guarantees for freedom of expression but on the contrary, an increase of judicial harassment and criticism’s muzzling, especially when politicians are slandered and religious values-practices are denigrated.
Many argue that censorship is necessary for a ‘healthy society’ and the ‘protection of the public’, for ‘making a fortune out of it’, or for the ‘preservation of power dynamics’ (State versus people) and ‘national security issues’. Yet, censorship is being met with resistance, seen as a danger to open democratic nations: support committees, online campaigns, peaceful demonstrations, cultural events, alternative media coverage,… regularly report violations of freedom of expression throughout the region, criticize the abuses and the pervasive forms of media control like self-censorship, draw new lines between censorship and moral responsibility, and call for transparent governments, just laws, independent press, a climate of open-minded dialogue and the building of confident societies.
Will those individual and collective initiatives be able to push boundaries? We will have to wait for the aftermath of wars and adrenaline pumped upheavals in the upcoming months and years, while pursuing the struggle at all levels, building sustainable partnerships across civil society’ scattered ghettos and ivory towers, and, as Gibran Khalil Gibran states in The Prophet, cease to be slaves who prostrate before tyrants and let the desire of seeking freedom become a harness, not only a goal or a fulfillment: “You shall be free indeed when your days are not without a care nor your nights without a want and a grief, but rather when these things girdle your life and yet you rise above them naked and unbound”.
Published in MARCH newsletter, November 2013, Lebanon)