Arrested humor: Comedian Nour Hajjar detained in censorship case

Stand-up comedian Nour Hajjar. Screenshot from a podcast video by MTV Lebanon. Fair use.

This piece was first published by SMEX, on August 30, 2023, and was written by Safaa Ayyad. An edited version is republished here under a content-sharing agreement.

Lebanon’s crackdown on freedom of opinion and expression shows no signs of abating. While journalists, activists, and even lawyers have long been targeted, the state has seemingly found a new target: comedian Nour Hajjar.

On Friday, August 25, stand-up comedian Nour Hajjar was called in by the military police in Al-Rihaniye and held for over 11 hours for questioning. This detention was prompted by a joke from a recent show in which he commented on army members working as delivery drivers to make a living in Lebanon. Hajjar critiqued how the government struggles to pay its military personnel, leading them to take on multiple jobs to make ends meet. 

While Hajjar was released that day, the case remained open and he was directed to return to the Military Police headquarters a few days later to sign a bail bond. Meanwhile, an online campaign inciting violence against the comedian began.

On Tuesday, August 29, when Hajjar arrived at the Military Police headquarters, as instructed, he was unexpectedly transferred to the Criminal Investigation Department. Lebanon’s Public Prosecutor, Judge Ghassan Oueidat, had decided on Hajjar's transfer without notifying his legal representative.

There, Hajjar was questioned about another comedy clip from one of his stand-up performances in 2018 and subsequently arrested. This marked Hajjar’s second summons in just a matter of days. 

The second arrest was based on two reports filed by Dar Al-Fatwa Lebanon's Muslim Sunni authority — regarding another five-year-old joke in which Hajjar makes fun of his mother’s actions during a Muslim funeral. Hajjar was accused of “committing crimes against the Islamic religion, inciting religious and sectarian discord, ridiculing the Qur’an, and undermining national unity.”

Judge Ghassan Oueidat decided to release Hajjar after seven hours of detention on the condition that he keep the court informed of his whereabouts. However, it remains unclear whether Hajjar will still face prosecution and be summoned for further questioning or whether he managed to avoid charges by apologizing and removing the controversial comedic videos.

Human rights activists and Hajjar's fans speculated that powerful individuals, potentially linked to intelligence agencies, had resurfaced the 2018 video following Friday's investigation. This may have been an attempt to justify their infringement on human rights and to mobilize support against the comedian.

In response to Hajjar’s detention, civil society groups, journalists, human rights advocates, and Hajjar’s fellow comedians gathered outside the Palace of Justice on Tuesday, demanding his release.

Humor is not a crime

According to Hajjar’s lawyer, Diala Chehade, in an interview with SMEX. “The video clip involving Hajjar dates back to five years ago, which should exempt him from legal prosecution involving public rights.” 

Chehade also urges the Lebanese judiciary not to be swayed by religious sentiments fostered by social and societal “trends.” Instead, she emphasizes the importance of the judiciary understanding the context of Hajjar’s and other artists’ work.

Chehade said that sarcasm and humor shouldn’t necessitate legal action, and there’s no crime inherently linked to jokes. She also points out that an act would be considered a crime only if it harms religious rituals. The case of the 2018 joke should be approached with caution, particularly because the context is fragmented and unclear.

The crime of the joke versus the crime of the century

Nour Hajjar’s case has sparked confusion and controversy within the Lebanese public, leading to divided opinions among supporters and opponents.

However, there has been significant disapproval of the escalating incitement. Influential religious figures released statements and videos condemning Hajjar's satirical content, indirectly hinting at potential violence and an intent to pursue legal action.

The Coalition for Freedom of Opinion and Expression in Lebanon, a group comprising various Lebanese and regional human rights organizations and institutions, released a statement on August 31, 2023, condemning the Public Prosecutor’s biased decision.

The coalition has further appealed to judicial authorities to provide robust legal protection for comedy and satire, especially considering the current tense circumstances. Lebanon is currently in its fourth year of a profound economic, political, and social crisis.

Notably, the demonstration outside the Palace of Justice occurred on the same day that the former Governor of the Banque du Liban, Riad Salameh, was expected to give his testimony in person over a major corruption scheme he has been accused of facilitating. 

Under Salameh's management of the central bank, Banque du Liban, there was a widespread theft of Lebanon's wealth, particularly through mismanagement and a money laundering scheme. This theft spanned several decades and intensified in the years leading up to the financial crisis that started in 2019. Some critics have labeled it the “crime of the century.”

However, Salameh did not show up, and his lawyer said they could not contact him and didn’t know his current residence. This angered protesters, as Lebanese authorities appear to let corruption suspects evade jail and investigation while arresting artists and activists instead.

Comedy in Lebanon is in danger

Although comedy can sometimes generate controversy, its influence on people can be substantial. 

In a conversation with SMEX, comedian Mohamed Baalbaki spoke out in solidarity with Hajjar and noted that watching and sharing comedy has become significantly easier in the digital era. Access to the internet has opened doors for a broader audience, potentially creating wider awareness among different groups of people.

Comedy in Lebanon has always served as a means to find humor amidst the country’s challenging circumstances. Unfortunately, creative freedom and satirical critique have now encountered “the scissors of censorship.” It is concerning that comedians are now subject to prosecution and arrest, warned Baalbaki.

Baalbaki asserts that comedy’s role is expanding, particularly due to its proliferation on digital platforms. Paradoxically, security services seem focused on pursuing influential artists while paying no heed to more dangerous offenders.

Does this mark another instance of the judiciary’s bid to impose self-censorship on Lebanon’s comedians and cultural voices?

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