Lebanon: Brief arrest of singer Zeid Hamdan caused uproar

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Lebanon:
Brief arrest of singer Zeid Hamdan caused uproar

The arrest of the singer and composer Zeid Hamdan, a well-known figure of the Beirut underground music scene, for defamation over a song he wrote in 2008 about the country’s president caused ‘Internet shock waves’ both nationally and internationally. He was released seven hours after his arrest.

In the song Zeid Hamdan urges the president, Michel Sleiman, who at the time when Hamdan wrote the song was commander-in-chief of the Lebanese Armed Forces, to “Go home”:



 Zeid Hamdan


“Dear friends, I am now in the prison of the police station of the palace
of justice in Beirut because of my song “General Soleiman”. They are
prosecuting me for defammation of President Soleiman. I dont know
until when I am staying in prison. Please mobilize!”

Message from Hamdan Zeid in prison, distributed via Facebook,
Twitter and
YouTube

Minutes after the news of the arrest went online, the Internet was alive with condemnation, reported The Daily Star from Beirut.

A Twitter hashtag was put into widespread use, with users expressing their disgust at the move. Within a few hours, a Facebook page “Free Zeid Hamdan” attracted thousands, and newspapers and news agencies began reporting on the incident.

When Hamdan was released seven hours after his arrest, the judge who told him he was free to go said “some people had requested it,” according to Zeid Hamdan, who believes public pressure led to his release.

“It was the people that pulled me out of jail,” Zeid Hamdan told The Daily Star: “It was mass protest over the Internet and media which made the government look authoritarian.”

Up to two years imprisonment
The law under which Zeid Hamdan was arrested, makes it illegal to insult the president and carries a maximum two-year sentence in Lebanon. In France, breaking the law against insulting the president carries a 45,000 euro fine. Spain and the Netherlands have similar laws, though rarely implemented.

According to The Daily Star, the Lebanese president himself wanted to gain distance from the move in its aftermath. “The Zeid Hamdan incident was a procedure by the concerned authorities. The President had no involvement nor any prior knowledge of the arrest,” his office tweeted the day after the incident. When contacted by The Daily Star, his office merely said that the issue was now “over” and would not comment on the arrest, or the law itself.

‘A bit of advice’
It was in 2008 when Zeid Hamdan decided to write a song about Suleiman. He has performed the song ever since, and and in 2010 an Italian director made a video of it and posted it on YouTube. The problems began when he posted it on a DVD to a Lebanese advertising agency. A vigilant customs officer watched it and there was one line he didn’t like.

“At the end of the song, I say ‘General go home’,” Hamdan told the BBC: “[The authorities said] it’s the worst thing you can tell him, you are asking him to leave power. So it’s worse than an insult,” he recalled.

Zeid Hamdan explained that it was not an insult – just a bit of advice. Unconvinced, the officials asked him to three interrogations, including one on 27 July 2011, when he was arrested. As he was put into handcuffs, Hamdan managed to pass his mobile phone to his lawyer.

“I gave him my Facebook code and asked him to do an announcement to my Facebook profile, which he did. People created a group to release me and in a few hours I had 2,000 people.”

Self-censorship
Emma Gatten wrote in her article in The Daily Star that “whether or not the law is truly a threat to artists, there is a legitimate concern that its existence could encourage self-censorship, whether in the arts or the media, and this episode is likely to do little to allay such fears.”

“[On Friday], some friends of mine were doing a concert,” Gatten quoted Zeid Hamdan as saying, “and they were quite concerned about my cause and they wanted to sing the song … the producers [of the concert] wouldn’t let them … they say they don’t want any problems. I tell you [self-censorship is] is the worst disease for us.”

Saghiyeh told The Daily Star that incidents such as Hamdan’s arrest are aimed at frightening off opposition, and thereby encouraging such self-censorship.

“What they want is really to intimidate them [rather than charge them],” he said. “Once they feel that this message is got … they can release them. It’s very healthy that people reacted this way. It’s a very healthy sign of society. It’s a very clear reaction to the judge, and to the people behind the judge, that we will not be silent when you restrain freedom,” he added.



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Sources

The Daily Star – 2 August 2011:

‘Public pressure led to my release: Lebanon artist’

BBC News – 29 July 2011:

‘Lebanon frees singer Zeid Hamdan in ‘slander song’ case’

France 24 – 29 July 2011:

‘La br

Similar incident in Senegal 

Freemuse – 2 August 2011:

‘Rapper arrested for criticising the president’

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