Wednesday, July 26, 2006

A historic night: freedom of speech has arrived?

Let’s start with a cliché: Tonight was a historic TV evening in Lebanon. An evening that will be remembered and discussed, possibly a night that historians will consider a turning Point

The talk show of Marcel Ghanem has finished a minute ago. Marcel is just about the hero of political TV in Lebanon and his show has high ratings. Many times, his show is the talk of the town the next day.

Tonight’s topic was Hezbollah: should they disarm or should they keep on fighting arch enemy Israel? You’d think this is quite an obvious question, but the opposite is true. So far, hardly anyone has even dared to raise this question if Hezbollah should disarm, let alone ask this question in one of the most highly watched programs on Lebanese TV. Hezbollah has always considered being the Resistance which has made them untouchable. That’s how it goes with Resistance: who dares to be against the defense of one’s own country?

The lengthy talk show allowed both pro and con positions to be discussed. And do take ‘lengthy’ as literal as you can: the TV program lasted the whole night from 8PM to midnight. Quite a difference with talk shows in western countries, where ABC’s 60 Minutes is already considered to be l-o-o-o-o-n-g.

The fact that opponents of Hezbollah were given so much time was (dare I say it?) pretty much the first time this happened on Lebanese TV during prime time. Before you had the usual critics of Hezbollah, but they mostly belonged to the intelligentsia who based themselves on all kinds of theoretical grounds blah blah to say that blah blah Hezbollah should disarm but there were no blah blah principle arguments against fighting Israel blah blah…

Tonight, we saw normal citizens who spoke frankly about their feelings regarding Hezbollah. And what a feelings they had! If this night is any indication about what the Lebanese think about Hezbollah, it would be that people are sick and tired of them. Many people in the TV studios thought Hezbollah has crossed a line by kidnapping two Israeli soldiers two weeks ago. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. All the frustrations and anger were released on one huge therapeutic TV night.

To watch so many citizens express their opinions freely on such a taboo topic as Hezbollah’s disarmament is highly unusual. Even though Lebanon is known to be the freest country in the Arab world, many topics are still off-limit. Hezbollah’s fight against Israel would be an example of such a topic.

Before, nobody would talk about it, unless in positive terms to pay their honor and respect for the many martyrs Hezbollah had made in their glorious battle against the Zionist, and so on. No one would even think of speaking against Hezbollah. You would immediately be accused of being pro-Israel and that’s among the worst accusations you can face.

Tonight however, everything was allowed. It felt like it became a match of who could debase Hezbollah in the ugliest and most creative ways. People seemed to be proud of their newly found freedom of speech. A similar emotion was released last year after the murder of Rafiq Hariri. You have to know that it’s forbidden to insult the Lebanese president. However, when Lahoud declared in a press conference that he was swimming at the time of the murder and that he hadn’t interrupted his daily swim, many Lebanese started photo-shopping to create fabricated pictures.

Almost the same day, pictures appeared showing Lahoud in a stupid looking swimsuit. Most of them were distributed using e-mail in an often secretive way. No wonder since you could get arrested for distributing or even possessing such pictures that made fun of the president.

Now, it seems the Lebanese people are beyond secrecy: they give their opinions without reservation and are willing to address all sorts of topics, including Hezbollah’s weapons. Whether or not this evening will have a lasting effect remains to be seen. What sticks in my mind is the ferocity of many speakers regarding their hatred against Hezbollah and the many wishes for disarmament.

Maybe, just maybe, freedom of speech has finally arrived.