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Defiant Joe Maalouf harbors no regrets.

Summary: Since his very public firing from a top television network earlier this month, Joe Mlouf has been biding his time, weighing his options.

BEIRUT: Since his very public firing from a top television network earlier this month, Joe Mlouf has been biding his time, weighing his options. He has already filed a lawsuit against MTV for breach of contract, and though he would like to continue the show in some form, no major programming decisions will be made until after the Ramadan season.

"After what happened [with MTV], I discovered how much people love this show and how much they respect me," he says. "People won't let [me] stop."

Last month, just over a year after it went on air, Mlouf's hit show Enta Horr (You Are Free) was abruptly canceled and Mlouf was fired and banned from the station. He was given the boot after he attacked Dikwaneh Mayor Antoine Shakhtoura for ordering the illegal closure of a gay-friendly nightclub and the detainment of several people, one of whom, a transsexual, was allegedly abused and forced to strip as deputies mocked and photographed her.

"I cannot stand that I have a show called Enta Horr and not defend the rights of these people," he says.

The official reason for Mlouf's firing, the channel's owner, Gabriel Murr, told local press, was that Mlouf had, after several warnings, failed to vet the show's content with management. Mlouf disputes this, accusing the Murr family of defending Shakhtoura because he controls a key voting bloc in the Metn, where the elder Michel Murr is a perennial candidate.

The controversy sparked a heated debate. Many, including some who criticized Mlouf in the past for his treatment of issues related to gay rights, came out in support of the host and condemned the station's censorship. Others dismissed him as a self-promoting provocateur and bid him good riddance.

Mlouf rose from obscurity to become one of the most popular and controversial television hosts in Lebanon by giving vent to the public's frustration while stoking their fears at the same time. As he prepares to re-launch the Enta Horr brand, The Daily Star sat down with Mlouf to see what, if anything, he has learned from past experience.

Mlouf got his start hosting his own show on Jaras TV, the pop culture and entertainment channel. Soon, he expanded into radio, and he still owns a part Jaras FM. It was not long before a mutual friend, who also happened to be a government minister, introduced him to the younger Michel Murr, the CEO of MTV.

Together, the two came up for the concept behind Enta Horr, a television news magazine show starring Mlouf. Enta Horr distinguished itself from competitor programs like Ahmar bil Khat al-Areed on LBC with tighter editing and a faster pace, tackling an average of five topics per episode, from pyramid schemes to official corruption with the occasional sentimental feature about, say, cancer-stricken youth thrown into the mix.

The tone was investigative, with Mlouf playing the outraged advocate of the people, unafraid to call out authority figures. His aggressive style of interviewing proved popular among audiences hungry for public accountability, but it also earned him criticism from those who saw bias in his choice and treatment of guests.

But where others see bias, Mlouf sees certainty. Besides, he does not consider himself a journalist, but rather "a Lebanese person who has something to say, who tries to speak in the voice of the people."

The show also came under fire for baiting viewers with reactionary hype, promising to expose the latest dangerous trend leading good boys and girls astray.

In his now infamous May 8, 2012, episode, Mlouf's team went undercover in a porn cinema in Tripoli where he claims young boys were being sexually abused by older men. In the report, he refers to homosexuals as shuzouz, Arabic for "deviants," adding that the fact that such practices are taking place within earshot of the call to prayer was "apostasy."

A few months later, another cinema in the Burj Hammoud municipality was raided and some 35 men subjected to anal "exams," which were swiftly condemned by the medical community and the wider public. Many blamed Mlouf for ginning up public outrage that led to the raids.

"I was never against any sexual orientation, but I was understood in the wrong way," he says, emphasizing his own outrage at the anal exams.

But when asked whether he regrets anything about his handling of the subject, Mlouf equivocates. "You cannot regret something you've done; you can learn from mistakes."

Mlouf says, for example, that he stopped using the word "deviants" to refer to homosexuals, because he recognizes that it is "sensitive."

But on his Nov. 27, 2012, episode, Mlouf introduces a segment on a recent metal concert in Dahr al-Wahash thusly: "A strange phenomenon in our Lebanese society, among our Lebanese youth. Every day we hear about devil worship, every day we hear about rituals, every day we hear about deviants, every day we hear about the strange spread of acts we in Lebanon see as something unfamiliar, unnatural in our society."

In his office, Mlouf defends the show: "I didn't say anything about metal music."

Later, in a subsequent phone call, he denies he ever linked devil worshipping to "these people directly," emphasizing that his primary concern was the drugs that were allegedly present. When pressed, he goes on the offensive, repeating his allegations, based on an eyewitness report, that the concert was held in a former convent. Satan worshippers are known to favor such sites for their rituals, he claims: "You can read it anywhere."

Likewise, he denies he is contributing to a general hysteria over devil worship that has exposed more innocent teenagers to persecution and bullying than it has saved virgins from ritual sacrifice.

Mlouf's use of the word deviants is just one example of the paradox that defines his style and arguably subverts his ostensibly noble mission.

Mlouf is deeply committed to defending what he sees as right and standing up against what is wrong, but he is not at all particular about the means to these ends.

"I used religion to be able to close these cinemas," Mlouf says, defending his use of the word kufur, Arabic for apostasy, in his report, although he insists it did not refer to homosexuality but rather to pedophilia. "In Lebanon you have to play the [religion] card because we don't have justice."

He admits, however, that religious fervor, once stoked, is somewhat harder to put out.

"This is a problem, yes, I know. We learned," he says, but adds after a moment: "But I'm telling you, we didn't do anything wrong about those two cinemas. At all."

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:7LEBA
Date:May 31, 2013
Words:1141
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