The headline in the French-language newspaper L'Orient Le Jour was certainly intriguing. "Four young people kidnaped and slain near Aley," it said.
Readers who wanted to know more were out of luck. The article that would have run beneath that headline was suppressed by the censor, and only white space appeared where the news would have been.
"Situation in the South at a standstill," said the leftist daily as Safir in its leading front page headline. At the time, however, the government was making daily promises about the deployment of the army into south Lebanon, so that article too was stricken, though the headline remained.
The English-language daily lke gave big play to an article headed "Hussein-PLO Polemic Resumes." The first half reported a statement by King Hussein of Jordan that Palestinians not associated with the Palestine Liberation Organization might represent the Palestinian people at a Geneva peace conference.
The second part, under the heading "PLO Hits Back," presumably contained the PLO response, but there again the reader was left to wonder.
Censorship of the press has become a fact of life here in a capital that once was home to the most wide open and outspoken press in the Arab world. Readers have become accustomed to white spaces in Lebanese newspapers and gaping holes in the pages of foreign magazines and papers where offending items have been neatly clipped out. Editors, intellectuals and even officials of the ministry of information complain about it, but the government shows no sign of lifting the censorship.
Censorship was imposed early this year, shortly after the Syrian-dominated Arab peacekeeping force moved into Beirut and ended the civil war. The theory was that the press had contributed to the war by emphasizing the country's religious and political differences and by importing radical foreign ideologies, so some guidance was necessary. The censorship is administered not by the ministry of information but by the national security agency, reportedly directed by an officer installed by the Syrians.
Editors complain that in practice the censorship is arbitrary and unpredictable, and that some newspapers are allowed more freedom than others.
"It's completely absurd," said an editor at An Nahar, Lebanon's most respected Arabic paper. "It all depends on the mood of the censor, or on which team is on duty that day."
He cited the story of the four murders near the mountain town of Aley. Everyone in Beirut knew what had happened; four young members of one of the rightist Christian militias ventured into territory dominated by the Druze sect and were murdered, apparently in retaliation for the deaths of two Druzes the week before.
That is the kind of story that inflames emotions here, and the censors killed it - except in the French-language paper Le Reveil (The Awakening), which is published and protected by the Christian party to which the four victims belonged.
Journalists here say Le Reveil frequently gets away with defying the censors because the government lacks the power to interfere with the party's armed men. Le Reveil reported the incident, so the next day the other papers did, too.
Each newspaper is required to submit to the censor proofs of its pages after they have been made up, including photographs and advertisements. Anything disapproved by the censor must be taken out. Theoretically, it is a violation to leave the white space, since it informs readers that something is missing and lets people know what the censors are up to, but the rule requiring that substitute material be put in the holes is no longer enforced.
The censorship has been relaxed a bit since the early months after the war, when not only papers printed here but material sent abroad by foreign correspondents was scrutinized.
At that time, correspondents based here went to Egypt, where there is no censorship of outgoing copy, to file their stories - a remarkable turnabout from the Nasser era when Lebanon was wide open and the press in Egypt tightly controlled.
Censorship of out going files by foreign correspondents was dropped after less than a month when foreign press bureaus threatened to leave and Lebanese businessmen complained that it would discourage foreigners from returning to Beirut.
One side effect of the censorship is that some publishers have taken their journals abroad. Half a dozen newspapers and magazines that used to be published here are now being published in other cities, most of them in Paris and London.
They continue to be distributed here, but must pass the scrutiny of the censors like any other foreign publication.