By Erika Solomon
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Free speech and women's rights supporters have posted semi-nude photographs of themselves on the Internet to protest at official condemnation of an Olympic skier who posed for a topless calendar shoot.
Switzerland-based Jackie Chamoun, 22, who is skiing for Lebanon at the Winter Games in Sochi, has apologized for photos and a video that appeared online, saying they were never meant to be published and she understood the criticism inside the conservative country.
But after Lebanon's sports minister said the photos had damaged the country's reputation, several of her compatriots expressed anger at the outrage in a nation racked by sectarian strife and where violence against women often goes unchallenged.
"You have women facing beatings ... you have explosions and so little security here, and people are completely distracted by a few pictures," said Tarek Muqadam, a photographer who offered to take free naked portraits at a studio in Beirut for the online campaign.
Using the hashtag #stripforjackie, dozens of men and women posed topless or naked, holding strategically placed signs, with the slogan: "I am not naked".
"I don't know how much the campaign in and of itself can change anything, but at least it's a step to get people to think about changing, to think about what's going on," said Tarek. "Lebanon used to be known for its freedoms."
Often described as the playground of the Middle East, Lebanon is more open than many politically and socially conservative neighbors. But activists say censorship is on the rise and women's rights have long been neglected.
The original photo of Chamoun, who also competed at the last Winter Olympics, was featured in a 2013 ski-calendar. The skier stands in pink underpants on a snowy summit of Lebanon's Faraya ski resort, holding a ski to cover her breasts.
But local news channels unearthed a 'making of' video that showed her completely topless and called it a scandal.
Chamoun's supporters have contrasted the minister's call for an inquiry with the lack of government action on violence against women, a problem highlighted last week when a Lebanese man bludgeoned his wife to death in front of their children.
Since the campaign was launched on Wednesday, its Facebook page has garnered more than 14,000 "likes". The photo trend has caught on, with many young Lebanese taking their own pictures and posting them to the page, and even companies have joined in.
Almaza, the popular local beer owned by Heineken, posted a photo of its green bottle, without a label. Volkswagen Lebanon posted a picture of a convertible Beetle with the slogan "Taking our top off since 1949."
Taking part in the photo shoot in Beirut was Sandra, a 22-year-old student who said she was a friend of Chamoun.
"I'm excited. It's not the first time," she said, with a wink. "This is the nature of real art. There is nothing taboo."
She said her motivation was to support free speech.
"We are free to do whatever we want with our body ... It's what we do that matters - what we actually do for society. And what Jackie does is something good."
(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)