When it comes to freedom of expression, Lebanon has always been regarded as one of the most advanced countries in the Arab world.

However, with recent bans on films, plays, and television programs, in addition to crackdowns on journalists and activists, this well-known and easily accepted image is now being questioned by many.

In recent months, the country censored several local independent film productions and banned Hollywood blockbusters including Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman

While the ban on Gadot's film was controversial, it was also hailed by many, given that the Israeli actress had once been a soldier in the occupying state's Army and even commended a military attack on Lebanon.

The other prohibitions, including a now-reversed ban on Steven Spielberg's The Post, sparked an even more heated debate on social media as many felt they were over-stretched. 

As the issue continues to take center-front on social media, the debate on censorship in Lebanon, what it's based on, and when it should or shouldn't be allowed is ongoing. 

In the wake of it, we spoke to Lebanese asking them to share their thoughts on the matter. Here's what they told us:

"In Lebanon, it really depends on the material being censored"

Speaking to StepFeed, Joe, a 29-year-old master's student, shared his thoughts on censorship in Lebanon. 

"If you ask me my opinion on censorship in general, I am completely against it. When it comes to censoring any artwork, just because it features a story deemed unacceptable to our society, it's just ridiculous," he said. 

However, Joe pointed out that given that Lebanon officially considers Israel an enemy state and bans support of any products it may export, including films, banning Israeli features or artwork doesn't really count as a form of censorship. 

"In Lebanon, it really depends on the material being censored. For example, when a censorship board bans Wonder Woman because its lead actress is Israeli and publicly supported a military attack on Lebanon, I honestly believe that is a righteous decision. Some people might ridicule my stance saying that one can't be against censorship if they accept it in specific situations. But to me, cases when a film has links to the occupying state are no longer about censorship. Here we get into a collective, national boycott that's governed by Lebanon's laws. The entire definition of censorship changes when we're talking about the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, that's my personal opinion," he explained. 

"I am completely against censorship, no matter what the situation"

Also speaking to StepFeed, Lara, an Abu Dhabi-based Lebanese producer, expressed her views on the matter. 

"This isn't a recent issue in Lebanon, censorship has always existed, targeting not only films, but also theatrical plays, and even television commercials. I think in recent weeks, the matter came to the forefront on social media because of the type of films being censored, grand, blockbuster, international productions," she said. 

"To me, whether it's a huge blockbuster or an independent short film, banning an artwork or controlling how it's shown is simply unacceptable. We make art, because we want to explore ideas and new perspectives. We aim to provoke emotion and thought in the audience, we want them to think, to feel things and then make their own minds on what they've seen. I believe this is a right. It's my right, your right, every human being's right. To have an opinion and regardless of what it might be, have the freedom to express it, in any shape or form."

When asked about her thoughts on bans that specifically target films with links to Israel, she said: 

"Give people freedom of choice, if they want to boycott a film, they'll do that, if not, then it's absolutely up to them.  It's disrespectful to us as Lebanese, it's outrageous, to take away our right to choose. To have someone select for you what you can and can't watch, what you should or shouldn't think is simply regressive and a rhetoric that certainly shouldn't be tolerated in our country." 

"People are going to watch banned films anyways"

Omar, a 26-year-old cinephile, also spoke to StepFeed, weighing in on the ongoing debate. When asked what he thinks of bans on films in Lebanon, he said:

"People are going to watch banned films anyways, they're going to be sold in illegal DVD stores across the country, so what does it really matter whether they (authorities) censor/ban a film or not? Nothing." 

When asked to share his thoughts on bans on films such as Wonder Woman and the now-reversed ban on Steven Spielberg's The Post, because the films or their makers had ties to Israel, Omar added:

"The people who were all for the ban on the release of both these films were looking at the entire issue from a point of view that I respect but don't completely agree with. Let's look at The Post in specific, the film isn't about Israel, it isn't a feature that supports their occupation of Palestine, or their war on Lebanon. This is a film, a work of art and it should be judged based on its content, not based on the political views of its respective makers."

"If you look at Lebanon's censorship system as a whole, it's faulty, inconsistent and vague"

When asked to share his thoughts on the Lebanese censorship system, Rami, a 27-year-old France-based film producer and entrepreneur, said: 

"When you talk about Lebanese censorship, you're basically talking about selectivity. There are no set policies or rules that govern what is to be censored or not, except when it comes to Israel-related material. Therefore, if you take a closer look at Lebanon's censorship system as a whole, you'll quickly find that it's faulty, inconsistent and vague. Even films or artworks that fall under the Israeli boycott category are also sometimes subject to this selectivity. Take The Post as an example, it was banned, then allowed to screen in theaters and no one understood how both decisions were made." 

Another point Rami made was centered around self-censorship that's a direct result of the recent crackdowns.

"Who's losing out as a result of this system? Who's going to be most affected by the recent wave of bans? The Lebanese film industry and our country's filmmakers. These vague censorship policies are forcing hundreds of artists, some of whom I previously worked with, to resort to self-censorship. They worry that if they don't edit things out themselves, their films will never be shown in Beirut and that's just detrimental to their work and such a shame," he added. 

So how does censorship really work in Lebanon?

Speaking to StepFeed, Gino Raidy, vice president of MARCH Lebanon, an NGO working to fight against censorship in the country, explained more about how it works. 

"Censorship of arts and culture in Lebanon happens via the general security’s censorship bureau. They make all decisions regarding films, theater scripts and basically anything that’s related to arts and culture," Raidy said. 

"What usually happens when it comes to films is that officials from the bureau watch a feature and decide themselves if it’s going to pass or not. When they have questions about a specific title, they submit them to the censorship committee, which was founded in 2010. This board includes representatives from several ministries, including the Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They usually deliberate and vote on whether or not a film is going to get a screening pass. Their votes are then submitted to the Minister of Interior, who often signs off on a decision," he added. 

Lebanon's censorship system doesn't work like it does under dictatorial regimes, where everything is monitored and one authority makes decisions on what passes or not. 

According to Raidy, in the country, "it’s usually a third party that pressures the government into issuing a ban on something. The top culprits are often religious authorities, for example, the Catholic center of information or the Islamic Dar Al-Fatwa. Embassies of foreign countries can also be culprits at times."

What is being done to change existing censorship laws?

When asked what he thinks could play a part in challenging decisions made by the country's censorship bureau, the activist said: Online campaigns fueled by the public. 

According to Raidy, because Lebanon's entire censorship system isn't based on a clear-cut set of rules, third parties or public outrage often do affect its bans, forcing board members to re-think their decisions. 

To prove just that, MARCH officials once wrote a script that satirizes the work of the censorship bureau and submitted it to them for approval. The script was initially rejected. When activists heard that the head of the bureau had changed, they re-submitted the exact same script again and it was accepted. 

"This shows you how open to interpretation this censorship system is. There is no clear, direct legislation on it here, decisions simply depend on whoever is handling the bureau at any given time," Raidy added. 

When asked what MARCH Lebanon officials believe is the first step in fighting censorship, Raidy said it lies in understanding the issue and its widespread scope. 

"Lebanese filmmakers need to submit their scripts to the censorship bureau, then wait for approval before they can even shoot their films. Then they need to get another approval before their films screen. So it’s a complete nightmare to even produce a film in the country, even before you screen it. Less censorship is key to help advance the Lebanese film industry as a whole and to also allow filmmakers to create features that represent our lives and realities."  

To help raise awareness on the issue in Lebanon, MARCH launched the Virtual Museum of Censorship, an online platform that catalogs and documents every artwork banned in Lebanon since its independence from France. 

In addition to online activism, the NGO's officials, and other activists from within Lebanon's film industry continue to lobby for censorship law changes.