The Lebanese government is considering taking legal action against the television series Homeland for the show’s unflattering portrayal of Beirut. Homeland is an award-winning American television fictional series on Showtime that focuses on international affairs and terrorism. The threat of legal action stems from the second episode of the second season entitled “Beirut is Back” which aired on October 7, 2012. Specifically, the episode portrays Hamra Street as a war-torn narrow alleyway infested with terrorist activity. The episode features militants armed with assault weapons shouting commands in Arabic and harassing terrified women. In truth, Hamra Street is a vibrant business district packed with Western-style shops. The episode also features women wearing hair-covering hijabs; however, this is uncommon in this particular area. Furthermore, the episode was filmed in neighboring Israel, not in Beirut. For these reasons, Lebanon’s minister of tourism, Fady Abboud, called the episode a “serious misrepresentation” of the country’s capital and has threatened legal action.
The Lebanese legal threat raises some interesting issues over whether there is even a viable legal claim. At this time, Abboud has not specified what type of legal action Lebanon will pursue. Abboud said, “We are following the case legally. I raised this at the cabinet meeting and the president asked the minister for justice and the minister of communications to see what can be done.” Showtime and Twentieth Century Fox, which produces Homeland, have declined to comment. Similar legal threats were made by Kazakhstan against actor Sacha Baron Cohen over his fictional character Borat featured in the film Borat and the television series Da Ali G Show. In the film and television show, Cohen, a British comedian, pretended to be a foreign journalist from Kazakhstan named Borat. The Borat character depicts the country of Kazakhstan as anti-Semitic and claims that Kazakh citizens enjoy drinking horse urine, shooting dogs, and regard rape and incest as enjoyable pastimes. In 2005, Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry threatened to sue Borat for portraying Kazakhstan in a derogatory way. Kazakh officials never specified what legal theory they would base any legal action on.
The Lebanese legal threat also allows us to examine the prevalence of stereotypes in television shows and movies. Middle Eastern countries have long complained that the Arab terrorist stereotype has been allowed to flourish in Western popular culture. Professor Jad Melki, director of the Media Studies Program at the American University of Beirut, explains, “the portrayal of Arabs in the US is that we are all Islamists living in the desert, evil and angry all the time…If you look at US media, racist stereotypes of African Americans have all but disappeared but it is still acceptable to stereotype Arabs.” Indeed, the Homeland episode reinforces negative stereotypes about progressive and Westernized Arab areas like the commercial business district where Hamra Street is located. Lebanon certainly has a reasonable fear that this stereotype will deter tourism.
Because it remains unclear where the Lebanese government would sue Homeland and what legal theory they would base the lawsuit on, a full legal analysis is difficult. Joseph Peter Drennan, an international lawyer, explains that the Lebanese government would have a lot of problems suing the show’s producers for defamation in an American court because there would be a lot of difficulty finding a plaintiff that would have standing. Drennan believes that the Lebanese government is likely considering a group libel claim which he believes would not be successful in American courts because it would be difficult to show that an individual suffered actual damages. In addition, the fact that Homeland is a fictional show makes any legal claim by the Lebanese government or an individual extraordinarily difficult. Furthermore, it will be very difficult for Lebanese officials to argue that the filming of the show constitutes a misrepresentation because it is a common practice in the film industry to film fictional shows in a location that portrays a different location. Interestingly, it also is possible that the Lebanese government may sue outside of the United States. Ultimately, where the suit is filed and the legal theory used by the Lebanese government matters. Regardless, a better solution for Lebanon is to turn to free market forces to effectuate change. Abboud has said, “I am calling on all young Lebanese adults to do what they need to do; to write blogs, to call the BBC and CNN to try to raise awareness that Beirut is not a city of Kalashnikov and war.” Indeed, the best course of action is for Lebanon to use the negative publicity in a positive way. Again, Borat can serve as an interesting example. In response to Borat, the Kazakhstani government ran advertisements promoting Kazakstan in major U.S. newspapers and commercials on major U.S. television stations. Kazakhistan’s foreign minister, Yerzhan Kazykhanov, now claims that Borat increased tourist visa applications ten-fold. “It was a great triumph for us,” the foreign minister said, “and I am grateful to Borat for helping to attract tourists to Kazakhstan.”